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EM

 

 

The Way It Could Have Been

Disclaimer:  I do not own these characters, I’m just borrowing them.
Thank you Linda B, Barb, and Winj for your kind words of encouragement.

Warning:  This is an Alternate Reality story, not in canon.  Please do not read it if you do not like this type of story.

 

Year 1 Part 1

Murdoch sat on the hard wooden pew and listened to the Reverend drone on with his sermon.  He could sense little Teresa sitting to his left and Paul sitting next to her.  Murdoch’s attention was focused to his right.  The dark haired boy was sitting next to him swinging his legs back and forth almost bumping the pew in front of him. Gritting his teeth, he whispered. “Johnny, stop it. Hold still.”  He caught a look of amusement from his 15 year old son Scott sitting on the other side of his squirming little brother.

*******

Johnny stopped swinging his legs, and tried to find a more comfortable position on that hard bench, but nothing was going to turn that hard wood into a comfortable seat.  He desperately wished for the service to be over.  He wanted to run and jump, not sit still while some man dressed in a black dress talked on and on.  He even wished they would all stand and start singing. At least that would get him off this hard seat.

Legs swinging once again, he loudly kicked the pew in front of him only to hear his father hiss, “Johnny!” followed by a slap on his thigh to drive the point home.

“Ow!” he complained, none too quietly and  was rewarded with a glare from his father and a snicker from his brother, as well as a couple of chuckles from the people behind them.  Johnny, knowing in all likelihood he was in trouble, spared a glance at his father. ‘His face is red all right. I’m gonna get it this time.’  Johnny spent the rest of the service trying to make up for his previous behavior by holding as still as an 11 year old boy could.

The Reverend led them in the final prayer and everyone stood to leave the church.  Johnny pushed Scott to get him to move faster, but the bigger boy wasn’t having any of it as he politely stood and motioned another family to go first.  Johnny rolled his eyes and started to squeeze past his brother when he felt a big hand on his shoulder and his father’s voice whispered in his ear. “Johnny wait your turn.”

Finally the Lancer family was allowed to proceed down the aisle, but as had happened every Sunday since Johnny had come to live with his family, they had to stop to talk to the Reverend.  The only thing that kept Johnny from escaping down the steps to freedom, was his father’s firm hand on his shoulder and his brother’s body blocking him in front.  So as he did every Sunday, he studied the toes of his shiny shoes he only wore on Sundays and waited for his family to finish being polite.

When the family was finally allowed to proceed down the steps to freedom,  Murdoch and Paul went to talk to some of the other men, and Scott headed over to where some pretty teenage girls were gathered waiting for their chance to talk to the handsome blonde Lancer son.

Johnny began to walk over to the rope swing, mindful of his father’s warning not to get his clothes dirty, when  a high pitched voice caused him to scowl, “Johnny, wait for me!” and his hand was grasped by 8 year old Teresa.  Resigned to having the child tag along, he allowed her to take the first ride on the swing.

The rope swing had a large knot tied at the bottom and several smaller knots spaced along the rope as hand holds.  He boosted Teresa up so her feet were balanced on the bottom knot and he made sure she had a good grasp of the rope with both hands.  “Hold on tight.”  He warned and gave her a shove to start the rope swinging.

Teresa squealed in delight, her lovely face alight with joy.  “Higher Johnny, higher.” She implored and Johnny gave her another couple of pushes to get her swinging higher.

In short order some other boys had gathered for their turn on the rope swing and were starting to get impatient with the little girl taking a ride on ‘their’ swing.  “Come on Johnny, get her down.”  Red haired Toby demanded.

“Just a couple more swings.” Johnny told the 13 year old.  Johnny gave her another push.

“Oh!  I saw her drawers!” 12 year old Mike crowed.

Johnny turned quickly and shoved Mike, “Shut up!”  Johnny turned to Teresa who was looking like she was ready to cry and helped her off the swing.   Teresa regained her feet, as Johnny went flying when Mike tackled him and the two boys fell to the ground in a pile of arms and legs.  They each got in a couple of good punches before the adults broke up the fight.

Mike’s father hauled his son to his feet as Murdoch did the same to Johnny.  “What the devil is going on here?”  Murdoch demanded giving Johnny a good shake.

Mike pointed a finger at Johnny, “He started it, he shoved me.”

Teresa jumped into the fray before Paul could stop her, “That’s not true!  Mike jumped on Johnny and knocked him down.”

That caused the rest of the boys to start yelling their own versions of what happened depending on which side they were on.  Finally the boys were corralled by their respective parents and were escorted away so that Murdoch was left to deal with Minor, Mike’s father.  Both boys had been sent to wait by their family’s buggy for the trip home.

“You better deal with that boy of yours Murdoch.  He’s nothing but trouble!” Minor spat.

“I’ll take care of Johnny, but your boy was out of line and I expect you to deal with him.”

“Don’t you worry Murdoch, Mike will get what’s coming to him in the woodshed when we get home.”

With that, Murdoch spun on his heal and walked with long strides to the buggy where his young son was waiting his fate in nervous anticipation.

********

Johnny sat gingerly on a pile of straw in the barn and wiped away the tears from his face.  The spanking his father gave him when they got home was nothing compared to some of the beatings his stepfather gave him, but it still hurt.  It was at times like this that Johnny wondered if he would ever fit into his father’s life.  He had been home with his father for about 6 months and he was still struggling to fit in.  Through his tears, he felt the soft fur of one of the barn cats rubbing under his hand trying to get his attention.  He absentmindedly rubbed the gray fur and laid himself down in the soft straw as his tears flowed once more.  Tears were a luxury in his short life, and he had learned early to hold them back in the presence of others, but alone, in private he couldn’t stop them from flowing.

*******

“Sir, have you seen Johnny?”  Scott asked after his younger brother.

“I think he’s in the barn. He’s probably working off some of his mad.”

“He didn’t start that fight, Pa.  He was just defending Teresa.”  Scott put in; determined to defend his little brother.

“I’m aware that he didn’t start it Scott, but I just grounded him two weeks ago for getting into a fight.  I told him he needs to come to me if the other boys start pushing him into a fight.”

“He’s not likely to do that, sir.  All the boys will just pick on him more if they think he runs to his father whenever he gets into a bind.” Scott pointed out.

“Scott, I know that fighting is what he’s used to, but that’s why he was expelled from school when he first got here.  He needs to learn self control, and understand there are other ways to deal with problems than with his fists.  I’m determined to have him start school at the next session, but if he gets into another fight, I’m pretty sure the school board will say no.”  Murdoch said shaking his head.

“Mr. Fredricks seems to be helping him a lot.”  Scott ventured.

“Yes, having a tutor is helping Johnny catch up quickly in several subjects.  He still has a way to go with his spelling and reading, but he’s doing very well in arithmetic.”

“Considering he refused to speak in English when he first came here, he has come a long way.” Scott responded.

Both Murdoch and Scott paused for a moment as they remembered the skinny angry boy who had been brought to the hacienda in the dead of night.  Clothes torn and dirty, he was still fighting the Pinkerton agent who had taken him from his mother and stepfather.  Even after traveling with the man 600 miles north from Mexico, Johnny bit him when he had a chance.  In comparison to that very angry boy, six months later, Johnny was docile and well behaved.

“Find him son, and tell him Sunday supper is almost ready and he needs to get cleaned up.”

“Yes sir.” Scott said and headed for the barn after his little brother.

********

Scott walked into the barn and stood a moment while his eyes were adjusting to the dim light.  Little flecks of dust danced in the sun rays that streamed through the half open door.  Scott breathed in the smell of sweet hay coupled slightly with the smell of horses and leather.  He was glad he had been able to come home from school this last semester to be here for his little brother and his father. He really missed his studies and friends at his school in Sacramento, but he would gladly give them up for his newfound little brother. He was grateful that he was able to attend a progressive school in Sacramento as the alternative was sailing to Boston to live with his Grandfather.  He  would be returning to school in September, but he knew he was going to miss his brother a great deal.

Now that his little brother had been found, he was even more grateful that they had resisted his Grandfather’s demands that he go to a ‘proper’ school.  Sacramento was close enough that he could come home on school breaks, and he planned to come home as often as he could as he sensed his brother needed to have him around.  Scott had been the first one Johnny talked to when he first arrived and even though there was a lot of difference in their ages, he enjoyed spending time with his little brother.

Scott was home on Christmas break when they got the news that the Pinkerton’s had found Johnny.  He warmly remembered that his father had given him a small glass of wine to raise in toast at hearing of Johnny’s expected return.

While the house bustled with activity as word spread that Murdoch’s lost son had been found and would be returning soon, no one was prepared for the angry, scared child that arrived two days after Christmas.

Scott smiled at remembering how the Pinkerton agent seemed so happy to get rid of his client’s son.  He called him a brat if he recalled, and he wasn’t too far off.  Johnny practically hissed at Murdoch and at one point had to be physically restrained so he could be dumped into a bath tub to get the layers of dirt and grime off him.

He turned the air blue with curses in Spanish and Scott thought his father very restrained for letting them go by without a word.  Murdoch took care of the cussing a week later with a bar of soap and to the best of Scott’s knowledge, the lesson only had to be repeated once.

Hearing the bell ring signaling supper, he shook himself out of his thoughts and walked fully into the barn to find Johnny asleep on some straw with a cat curled up in his arms.  Scott gently picked up the cat and carefully set her down a few feet away and turned back to his sleeping brother.  “Johnny.” He crouched down.  “Come on, wake up, it’s time to eat.”  He gently shook his shoulder.

Johnny’s blue eyes shot open in a look of fear until he came awake enough to recognize it was Scott shaking him.  As he struggled to wake up, he took several deep breaths.   Rubbing his eyes, he muttered, “Musta fallen asleep.”

‘Yes you did.  Supper’s ready and we’ve got to get cleaned up.”  Scott said helping Johnny to his feet. He began brushing the straw off his clothes and picking it out of his hair as Johnny tried to brush his hands away and squirm out of his grasp.  Satisfied that most of the straw was gone, Scott directed Johnny out of the barn toward the wash house.

**********

Murdoch sat at the head of the dining room table and watched with amusement as Scott steered his brother into the dining room. He knew that Johnny could be a bundle of energy at the best of times and he appreciated Scott riding herd on him.

“Did you wash your hands Johnny?”

“Yes sir.” Johnny said and showed him his still damp hands.  “I washed all the way up to the elbows. Do ya wanta see?” He said turning his arms over.

“No, that’s alright son, I believe you.”  Murdoch said with a small smile gracing his lips.

Scott held his hands out for inspection. “Me too. Now can we eat?”  He asked with a laugh.

Murdoch chuckled and said, “Sit down and it will be right out.”

No sooner than Murdoch had completed the sentence, Maria brought out a roast and set it in front of him for carving.  She hurried back into the kitchen and returned with a heaping bowl of steaming mashed potatoes and a bowl of peas.  As she poured Johnny a glass of milk, she said, “I will bring some fresh bread, is there anything else you need patron?”

“No Maria, everything looks good.”  Murdoch replied with a smile and began carving and serving the roast.

Scott accepted the plate his father passed to him and grinned at his brother, “wipe your mouth Johnny, you have a milk mustache.”  He rolled his eyes as his brother tried to get rid of it with his tongue.

“Use your napkin, son and put it in your lap.” Murdoch reminded him.

Johnny shrugged and wiped his mouth and then frowned at the plate his father handed him. “There’s too much meat and I don’t like peas.” He complained.

“Meat and vegetables are good for you, so eat it all.”  Murdoch said sternly.

Johnny looked again at the mound of roast beef and picked up his fork. He wrinkled his nose as he carefully pushed the peas away from the mound of mashed potatoes.  As he reached for the gravy, his sleeve caught the glass of milk sending it off the edge of the table.

Faster than the eye could see, Murdoch caught the glass and set it back on the table away from the edge.

“Good catch.” Scott said admiration ringing clearly in his voice.

“Thanks.  I’ve had a lot of practice over the years.” Murdoch said dryly.

“I didn’t knock my milk off that often.” Scott protested.

“At least once a week. I think you’ve forgotten son.”  Murdoch smiled.

Johnny sat enthralled listening to his brother and father’s banter.  He enjoyed hearing about his brother as a kid and the fixes he got into.  One thing he didn’t like them to talk about was what mischief he’d been up to, so he kept quiet hoping the subject wouldn’t come up.

As supper began winding down, Johnny was confronted with his uneaten peas.  He had finished most of the meat, but he still hadn’t found a way to eat the peas.  Try as he might, he still found much of his father’s food not to his taste.  He really missed his mother’s tamales, and meat ball soup.  Once in a great while, Maria made him something special, but as his father and brother didn’t appreciate their food as spicy as Johnny did, he had to conform to their tastes.

When Anna came to clear the table, he held his breath as she reached for his plate.  He didn’t dare take a breath or look at his father until after his plate had been removed to the kitchen.  With a sigh of relief, he picked up his glass of milk, happy for once his father had not noticed the peas carefully arranged under the remaining slice of roast beef.

His attention returned sharply when Murdoch mentioned riding up to silver springs tomorrow. He heard his father say, “Scott would you ride up there with Cipriano and check out the spring?  I want to make sure it’s still flowing before we move the cattle into that area.”

“Sure thing.  How bad do you think it’s going to be this summer?” Scott asked.

Murdoch shook his head. “It’s going to be a tough year keeping the cattle watered. When the rains stopped in April, I knew we were in for a drought.  We’ll just have to see how the springs and wells do and then I’ll have to decide if we have to sell off some cattle.”

“Can I go too?” Johnny asked.

“No son, not this time, tomorrow’s a school day for you remember?  Mr. Jamison will be here as usual at 9 o’clock.”

“How come I have to go to school in the summer when the rest of the kids are off?” He said with a bit of whine to his voice.

Murdoch replied, “Watch your tone, young man.  You’re being tutored so you can catch up in your lessons. I want you to be ready to join your class in September.”  He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip signaling that the discussion was closed, and then looked up as Maria, brought in a blackberry pie and set it down.  “Gracias Maria.”  He said as she began to cut and serve the pie. “None for Johnny,” He stopped at Johnny’s surprised look. “He didn’t finish his supper.”

“That’s not fair!”  Johnny said hotly, ready to argue.

“Oh and hiding your peas under your meat is fair?”  Murdoch retorted.

Scott smiled at the standoff between his little brother and his adamant father.  Rather than answer, Johnny pushed his chair back and started to stand to leave the table.

“No, you just sit right there,” Murdoch instructed.

Johnny reluctantly sat back down and crossed his arms defiantly.  After a moment, he said, “May I be excused?” He copied how Scott would ask to leave the table.

Scott threw Murdoch a glance and his father gave in, “Yes you may, but stay in the house.  I don’t want you to go out and get all dirty again before bedtime.”

“Yes sir.”  Johnny said disappointment clearly in his face but not wanting to argue and have to sit at the table while they finished their pie.

He headed for the kitchen when Murdoch’s voice stopped him again, “Not the kitchen either son, why don’t you go into the study room and work on your homework.  I’ll be in there in a little while to check your arithmetic.”

With shoulders slumped, Johnny reluctantly walked into the study room, thinking he wanted to be anywhere except studying.

*********

“You have to give him credit for trying.” Scott smiled.

“He wouldn’t be a normal 11 year old if he didn’t try it.” Murdoch took another sip of his coffee  and thought, ‘It’s actually a relief to have him behaving like a normal 11 year old boy.  There was a time when he first came that I wondered if he would ever act like a normal boy.’  Pushing those unpleasant thoughts away he concentrated on finishing his pie and talking with Scott.

He knew he would miss these pleasant conversations with the boy when he returned to school in a few months.  Scott was mature for his age and had a good head on his shoulders.  He had his father’s love of books and had from a young age found a fascination in words.

Murdoch would have liked to be selfish and ask Scott to give up a year of his schooling to stay and help him with Johnny, but he had already given up the last semester to be here and he couldn’t keep him out of school any longer.

He had already received two threatening letters from Harlan Garrett on the subject of Scott’s schooling and while he wasn’t particularly afraid of the man, he was grateful to him for providing for Scott’s education.  The search for Maria and Johnny all those years had drained any funds he could have saved for Scott’s higher education.  Scott had already sacrificed enough for his father and brother and Murdoch had no intention of depriving him of the education that was due him.

Still in all, he was going to miss the boy but he knew he couldn’t jeopardize Scott’s future.  This time next year he would be taking Scott to Monterey to catch a clipper east as he would spend the next several years living with his grandfather while he attended Harvard.  For now, he would be satisfied seeing Scott when he traveled to Sacramento on business and during school breaks.

With a loud sigh, he suddenly realized Scott had asked him something and was waiting for an answer.  “I’m sorry son, I didn’t hear you.”

“I said would you like to play a game of chess later?”

“I would, but I have some more bookwork to do and I need to check Johnny’s school work.”

“How about if I check his work while you work on the books. We can play a game after he goes to bed.”

“That sounds good son.”  Murdoch said as they both arose from the table.  “See if you can help him with his spelling words too, if you don’t mind.”

“No problem.  Sir?”

“Yes Son?”

“Mr. Jamison is done with Johnny by 2:00.  Could he ride out to the springs with me then?  It’s only about a 45 minute ride each way and it doesn’t get dark until late this time of the year.”

Murdoch thought for a minute, and said, “That’d be fine.  That will give him a little incentive to get his work done tomorrow. Plan on riding out with the men to the herd tomorrow and help them work the cattle and then come back later to pick up your brother.”

“Yes sir.  I’ll tell Johnny.”

*********

Johnny squirmed in his chair as Mr. Jamison droned on reading from the primer.  He was anxious for him to get done as he was ready to get out of the house and go for a ride with his brother.  They had actually finished the lessons early today, but instead of just calling a halt for the day, Jamison was moving onto the next lesson.

The grandfather clock struck 2 pm and Johnny jumped with the first chime.  Mr. Jamison didn’t notice and he kept droning.  Johnny’s ears perked up when he heard the front door slam and he prayed it was his brother coming to save him from the boredom being inflicted on him by his tutor.

Scott shot his head around the corner of the door and asked. “Just about done?”

Mr. Jamison looked up in slight confusion, his long face twitching in irritation as he pulled his pocket watch from his vest. Flicking it open he scowled at seeing it was 2:15.  “I didn’t realize the time.  You are dismissed for the day John.  You be sure to do your assignments tonight. I shall be speaking to your father to make sure he is aware of the work I expect you to do this week,”

“Yes sir.” Johnny said as politely as he could, while thinking, ‘ you slimy polecat.’

Scott could practically read his brother’s mind and thought it best to intercede before his brother voiced his opinion as he had been apt to do in the recent past.  “Come on Johnny, we’ve got work to do.  See you tomorrow Mr. Jamison.”  And Scott had the two of them out the door and on their way.

“Thanks Scott.”  Johnny said as he mounted his horse that his brother had thoughtfully saddled for him.

Before Scott could respond, Johnny had kicked his horse into a gallop and he found himself urging his own horse to catch up.

*********

The summer went by quickly, too quickly for the Lancer brothers.  In spite of the demanding ranch work, and constant worry about the drought conditions, Scott found time to spend with his brother that drew them close together.   As he rode along heading for home one late September afternoon, he was saddened to think how much he would miss his father and brother.

In two days he and his father would be taking the stage to Sacramento.  He was returning to school, and his father had business to attend to.  So far, whenever they would discuss their departure, Johnny would grow very quiet and leave the room.  He had tried to discuss it with him, but Johnny refused to talk about it.  Just this morning, Johnny had yelled at him that he didn’t care if he was leaving, ran into his room and slammed the door.

Scott unconsciously shrugged and realized Johnny’s words hurt him, even if he knew his brother really didn’t mean them.  Tomorrow, he planned to spend the whole day with his family.  His father asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday, and he told his father that rather than a party, he would like for the three of them to spend the day together fishing.  He had taken Johnny fishing a couple of times to the stock pond behind the house, but tomorrow they were going up into the foothills to a stream teaming with rainbow trout this time of year.

He wanted to cook their catch over an open fire, and savor their time together.  Johnny hadn’t demonstrated a lot of patience for fishing as of yet, but Scott thought he might enjoy this trip as they were sure to catch several fish each.

With a start, Scott realized he had allowed his horse to take his own course and he was meandering at a leisurely pace off the trail, cropping at the sweet summer grass.  Chiding himself for his inattention, he gathered up his reins and headed home at a ground covering lope.

***********

“Johnny wake up. Rise and shine little brother, I can hear the fish biting.” Scott shook Johnny again trying to get him to wake up.

Johnny opened one eye and could see the room still bathed in darkness. “Is too early Scott.”  He complained and rolled over taking the covers with him.

“Come on.  We have to get going.  We need to get there early while the fish are biting and it’s an hour ride.”  Scott pulled the covers off his brother and turned up the lantern.

Johnny still seemed reluctant to get up so Scott, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth, poured a glass of water and carefully dribbled a little over his sleepy brother’s head.

Johnny shot up and yelled, “Hey! Cut that out!”

No sooner had his words faded, they heard their father pound on the door, “You boys settle down in there.  Get dressed and down to breakfast right now.”

At the ring of authority in their father’s voice, they both sobered up. “I’m getting’ up, give me some privacy brother.” Scott headed for the door as Johnny swung his legs to the floor and stood up.

“Five minutes, Johnny.  Better hurry, Pa sounds grumpy.”

“Okay, okay, I’m hurryin’”  Johnny replied reaching for his pants and socks.

Scott closed the door and headed for the kitchen knowing he needed a filling breakfast before they headed on for the day.

***********

It was eleven o’clock and they had caught only 3 fish so far.  Scott had caught two and Murdoch one.  Johnny sat fidgeting on the bank of the slow moving stream and Scott wondered how long it would be before he threw another rock in the water, causing their father to make good on his threat to leave early and go home.

Overall, they’d had a good ride up in the crisp morning air and had enjoyed themselves, but Scott could see Johnny’s dark mood of the last week settle back over him.  He knew it weighed heavily on his little brother’s mind that he was returning to school, but he just didn’t know how to assure him that the time would go quickly and he’d see him again at winter break.

Johnny had made a few friends over the summer and once he started at the school in Green River next week, he would be so busy, he’d hardly have time to miss his brother.  At least Johnny had the ranch and their father, and Maria, and Paul, and Teresa.  Scott thought with a pang of home sickness.

Before he could shake off that thought, he heard Johnny’s voice, “Papa, I think I got one!”

Scott got up from the bank and hurried over to watch their father instruct Johnny on how to land it.  Johnny’s pole was bending and his brother had to use all his strength to keep from tumbling into the water.

“It must be a whopper, Johnny.” He encouraged.

“Play the line out a little, son.  Let him run a bit, then bring him in.  You don’t want to get him hung up on some rocks.”

Scott looked at his brother, a picture of concentration as he worked to land the big fish.  Johnny followed their father’s instructions to the letter and in a short time, they could see the glittering, struggling fish being hauled to the edge of the bank.

 

“Scott, get ready to grab it.”  Murdoch instructed as he steadied Johnny for the final haul in.  Johnny was beginning to breathe hard from the exertion and Scott was determined his brother was not going to lose his prize now.

Scott reached out to grab the line to haul in the fish as it jumped once more out of the water in its struggle for freedom.  Johnny gave another pull on the fishing pole and Scott had the line in his grasp.  He reached out with his other hand and held the line a few inches above the glistening fish. “Got it!” He announced with satisfaction.  “It’s huge Johnny…” Before he could say another word, to his dismay, a rock slid out from under his boot and he found himself falling into the water.  He began flailing his arms in an effort to keep his balance while holding onto the fish, but he could tell; he was going in.

Before their startled eyes, Murdoch and Johnny watched Scott take a header right into the water.  He went under for a moment and came up to see his father and brother laughing at his predicament.

“Where’s my fish, Scott?”  Johnny said through his giggles.

Scott frowned and then held the 9 inch trout out of the water.  He struggled to his feet and handed the trout to his father, while he grabbed muddy handholds on the bank to climb out.  “Very funny.” He said as he bent down and swished his muddy hands clean in the water.

Murdoch couldn’t help a few more chuckles as he laid the fish on the grass behind them. He couldn’t resist teasing Scott a bit more, “Happy Birthday son.”

Johnny smiled at the frown Scott gave their father.  Scott noticed his brother’s glee at his wet condition, and gave him a brotherly shove as he marched by.

“Hey!  I didn’t do nothin’”

“Come on son, let’s let him dry off and cool off.  We need to clean these fish and then we’ll have lunch.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger fish in my life.”

Johnny beamed at his father’s praise and followed to help get their trout meal prepared.

********

Scott’s birthday supper that evening was a festive affair.  Paul and Teresa joined them and after Scott’s favorite supper of Chicken and Dumplings, they gathered in the living room.

Murdoch worked the cork screw to open a bottle of wine.  With a pop, he worked the cork loose.  “I’ve had this wine for 16 years.  It was a gift from a very good friend to celebrate your birth Scott, now I think it’s an appropriate time to open it to celebrate you’re 16th birthday.”

“Here, here.”  Paul said with  pride in the young man he thought of as a nephew.

Murdoch poured glasses for himself, Paul and Scott and handed them out.  He then poured grape juice for Teresa and Johnny.

“I’d like to make a toast.  To my son Scott, you have been a blessing in my life all these years.  From the day you came home with me at five years old, to this very day, my life has been brightened by you.  You have helped me through some tough times and I do thank you for that.  You have been a wonderful brother to Johnny, and friend to everyone in the community.  You have grown up to be a young man any father would be proud of.  To you Scott. Happy Birthday.”  He  raised his glass and the adults touched their glasses, and then lowered them so Teresa and Johnny could join in.

They all took a sip and Murdoch sputtered as he got a mouthful of vinegar.  With a grimace of disgust, he spit the rancid wine back into the glass. “It’s gone bad!”

Scott wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “That’s awful!”

Paul was making faces as well. Johnny couldn’t help himself and burst into laughter at the faces the three of them were making and soon Teresa joined in.

Murdoch poured some scotch into three glasses.  “Here, this will help. Sip it slowly son. You’re not used to it.” He advised.

Scott took his glass and carefully sipped the whisky. He had no intention of letting his father know that he had already tasted whisky on occasion and found he had acquired a taste for it.

“That’s more like it.”  Paul said as he savored the fine scotch.

“Come on Scott, open your presents.” Teresa pleaded.  “This one’s from me.”  She said as she handed him a flat package wrapped in red cloth.

Scott sat down on the couch and opened Teresa’s present.  He smiled when he saw it was a book of poetry.  He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.  “Thank you Teresa.  I’ll look forward to reading these.”

The little girl smiled shyly and blushed a little bit, but recovered quickly, “keep opening.” She urged.

“Here you go Scott.”  Paul said as he handed Scott a package.

Scott unwrapped the parcel and opened the box carefully. Inside was an ink pen set with several quills. “Thank you sir.  These will come in handy.”

“You’re welcome Scott.”  Paul said with affection.

Teresa was practically jumping up and down with excitement as Scott opened his presents.  Her braids were bouncing on her back with each movement and Scott couldn’t help but smile at her unbridled enthusiasm.

********

For his part, Johnny was quiet and just watched the proceedings warily.  Birthdays were something he was not too familiar with.  His own birthday was not something his mother celebrated. As his birthday was close to Christmas, he always thought of the Christmas celebrations as his birthday present. He liked to pretend all the pageantry and celebrations were for him, as his birthday was just another day to his mother and stepfather.

He looked up with a start as Scott exclaimed over the suede jacket their father had given him.  Scott tried it on. “It’s a perfect fit!  Thank you sir.”

“You’re welcome son.”

“Who’s this from?”  Scott asked holding up the brown paper package.

Johnny felt himself blush when all eyes turned to him.  “It’s from me.” He mumbled.

Scott shook it.  “It doesn’t rattle.  It’s not heavy enough for a book.  Socks? Brother did you get me socks?” Scott teased.

“It ain’t socks.” Johnny said in disgust.

Scott quickly opened the wrapping and his mouth dropped open. “Johnny!”

Johnny, once again feeling self conscious muttered. “It ain’t much.”

“Johnny, I love it.  I’ll take it to school with me and whenever I miss the ranch, I’ll look at it to feel closer to all of you.”  Scott wiped at his eyes as embarrassing moisture threatened.

“Let’s see son.”

Scott held up the pencil drawing of Lancer with the house in the distance and cattle grazing in the fields in the foreground.

“You did a nice job with that Johnny.”  Murdoch praised.

“Thanks.”  Johnny said shyly as everyone admired the picture.

Scott got up and gave him a hug.  “Thank you Johnny. I’ll treasure it always.”

Johnny squirmed out of his brother’s embrace as he once again felt despair at his brother’s eminent departure in the morning.

*********

The next morning, Johnny sat at the breakfast table picking at his food.  His brother and father’s talk swirled around him as they discussed last minute details of Scott’s return to school.  A black mood settled over Johnny as he half listened.  A plan started forming as he desperately sought a way to keep his brother from leaving.

Murdoch and Scott pushed their chairs back.  “Make sure you have everything, son and I’ll meet you out front.”

As his father and brother left the kitchen, Johnny put his plan into action, little did he know the consequences of such a fool hardy act.

************************************************************************

Year 1 Part 2

Johnny wiped the tears from his cheeks and drew in a shuddering breath.  He was in big trouble, and the thought of what his father was going to do to him when he returned was scaring him almost more than the yelling he did when he discovered Johnny was responsible for the damage.

He hadn’t meant for the fire to get so big.  He just wanted it big enough to cause his brother to stay.  He thought maybe if he was bad enough, his father would let Scott stay to help take care of him.  He had heard his father talking to Paul just a few days ago, about how much he would miss Scott’s help with his younger brother. He’d even said he wasn’t sure he could handle him.  He was just helping his father make the decision he needed Scott to stay.

 Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.  He’d started a small fire using a torn up newspaper in the brass pot by the bookcase.  After a few satisfying flames, the fire died out.  Realizing he needed more fuel, he took the table lamp and tipped it enough so some of the lamp oil dripped onto the newspaper.  Johnny waited a moment and nothing happened so he added some more paper and poured out a bit more oil.  With a whoosh, the lamp he was holding ignited in flame along with brass pot at his feet.  Johnny was so surprised he dropped the lamp and flames leapt up the book case to the ceiling.

Johnny felt sick as he remembered the flames covering the wall towering above him.  Scott had pulled him away to safety as Paul and their father doused the flames.  He shivered as he remembered the smoke and the smell of damp paper followed by his father towering over him much like flames earlier.  He remembered his father shaking him and yelling at him.  Asking him over and over if he was hurt.  Then to his surprise, his father hugged him, then he started yelling at him again. Finally his father swatted him a couple of times and dragged him upstairs by the arm to his bedroom, swatting him several more times along the way.  Johnny rubbed his sore rear end thinking that his father said he wouldn’t be going to Sacramento after all and that Johnny had more coming to him when he returned from taking Scott to the stage.

Johnny now stood at the window as he watched his brother climb into the buggy with their father and drive away.  Scott turned around and waved when he saw Johnny.  “I’ll write you Johnny.”  Scott called to him.  When the buggy was out of sight, Johnny threw himself onto the bed and cried until he fell asleep.

**********

Scott threw a couple of glances at his father.  Knowing the stern look on his face meant that his father did not want to discuss Johnny, he took a deep breath and plunged in anyway.  “Don’t go too hard on him sir.  He didn’t mean to catch the bookcase on fire.”

“That’s beside the point Scott.  He’s not 5 years old.  He knows not to play with fire and he will be punished. His behind is going to be as toasted as those books.”  Murdoch flicked the reins causing the horse to extend its trot.  “We better move along or we’ll miss the stage.”

Scott sighed knowing his brother was in for a tough afternoon, but there was no way to help him out of this predicament.  He shuddered at the sight of the flames towering over the scared boy and was thankful he hadn’t been hurt.

********

Murdoch and Scott arrived in Morro Coyo  one hour before it was scheduled to arrive.  They sat down on a wooden bench outside the stage depot and waited for the stage.

“I’m sorry I can’t go to Sacramento as planned son.  I’ll make a trip up in a few weeks.”

“I understand sir, Johnny needs you.”

Murdoch shook his head, “I’m not sure if he feels that way.  It seems like I barely praise him for doing something right, when he turns around and jumps right into trouble.”

“He does seem to have a talent for finding trouble, that’s for sure.”  Scott chuckled.

“I don’t know if I think it’s something to laugh about Scott.  Today was dangerous. He could have been hurt not to mention the damage to the house.”

“I think he was just as scared as we were.  I know he didn’t intend for that to happen.”

“For some strange reason, he seemed to think setting a fire would get you to stay.  I don’t understand his reasoning.  All it did was cause damage to the house and get him in a lot of trouble.”

“I think he just panicked and somehow thought you would want me to stay.  Yesterday he kept asking me why I had to leave.  He even asked me if I wanted to go away.  He seemed so lost. Then he got mad at me and told me he didn’t care if I ever came back.”

Murdoch nodded and looked thoughtful.  “I wonder if  he’s been mistreated by his stepfather.  He’s very reluctant to let me in.  Have you noticed about the only time he seems relaxed around me is if you’re around too?”

“I noticed that too.  He seemed a lot better for a while, but in the last few weeks as it got closer for me to return to school, he started following me around again. A couple times I almost tripped over him.” Scott said shaking his head.  “I sure hope he’ll be alright.”

Murdoch clapped Scott on the shoulder as the stage careened around the corner, “He’ll be fine son.  He went through this already when he first came here if you recall.  He was missing his mother, but he got over that.  He’ll get over this too.”

Scott stood and picked up his bag. “I sure hope so…I really do.”

The stage pulled up in front of them and dust flew everywhere. Scott took off his hat, and flapped at the dust as it tried to settle on his new traveling clothes.  Setting his hat back on his blonde hair, he tossed his bag up to the man riding shotgun.  He turned to pick up his trunk, but Murdoch was already hefting it up to the top of the stage.

“You should be in Sacramento by this evening. Wire me when you get there so I’ll know you made it alright.”

“Yes sir.  Tell Johnny…well tell him I’ll miss him and I’ll write.” He said extending a hand to his father.

Murdoch brushed it away and took his oldest son in a hug.  “I’ll miss you son. You take care of yourself and don’t worry about Johnny.  He’ll be fine.  If he’s good, maybe I’ll bring him with me when I come up to Sacramento.”

Scott brightened at that and with sparkling eyes that reminded Murdoch of his beloved Catherine, smiled at his father gratefully.  “I’ll keep an eye on him while you go about your meetings.  He won’t be any trouble, I promise.”  Scott said sincerely.

Murdoch chuckled, “Don’t make promises your brother can’t keep Scott.”

The driver interrupted whatever else they might have said by calling to the  passengers to load up.  Scott shook his father’s hand and climbed into the stage and with a slap of leather, the four horses took off for their next stop.

*********

Johnny awoke to the sound of men yelling from the corral by the barn. He slowly got up from his bed and looked out the window to see a horse wildly bucking for all its worth and several men were shouting encouragement to the rider.

Johnny watched idly for a couple of minutes until the horse bucked the man off to the jeers of the other hands.  His attention was caught by Paul’s voice just below him asking if Murdoch had returned from town yet.

“No senior.”  Maria replied.

“When he gets back, please tell him I need to see him.  Gracias Maria.”  He said tipping his hat.

‘When he gets back, he’s going to beat me.’ Johnny thought and a shiver went through his slim frame.  His father acted like he wanted to be nice to him, but Johnny knew his father had kicked him and his mother out.  His father didn’t really want him.  He knew the truth.  His mother told him that if his father ever found them, he would take Johnny away just to hurt her.

Now with Scott gone, there was no one to protect him from the giant man who imposed his will on every living thing on the ranch. ‘Not me.’ Johnny thought.

He looked around his room and made a quick decision.  He knelt down,  reached under the bed, and unhooked the leather pouch  hanging from the bed springs. He opened  the pouch and dumped it on the bed.   He sorted through several coins. “Two dollars and thirty seven cents.” He counted.  It’s not much, but it’s gonna have to do, he told himself. Stuffing the coins in his pocket, he picked up his jacket.

He looked once around the room, and decided there was nothing else he needed. He’d never had much before coming here, but he had been given new clothes, boots, and a real jacket when he came to live here.  Taking a deep breath and steeling himself to leave, he headed for the door.  He turned the knob and found it wouldn’t turn.  He tried again and jiggled the handle.  “Locked!” He growled.  Fury coursed through his body at this latest indignity committed by his father.  He looked around the room for something he could use to open the door. ‘Think Johnny, think.” He chided himself.

His attention was once again drawn to the sound of the men breaking horses in the corral and an idea came to him.  He put on his jacket and climbed up to the open window.  Balancing carefully, he reached one hand out to the tree just outside.   It was quite a stretch for him, but he was able to take hold, and more by luck than anything else, he swung himself into the tree.

His boots slipped on the smooth bark of the elm tree, so bracing his back against a limb, he removed his boots and socks and dropped them to the ground. He held his breath to see if anyone saw or heard them, but no one came to investigate the sound of his boots hitting the hard packed ground.  Breathing a bit easier, he slowly made way down out of the tree.  When he reached the ground, he sat down and replaced his socks and boots.

‘Now to get to the barn,’ he thought.  He brushed the dirt off, made himself stand tall, and walked in measured steps to the barn.  He figured only Paul or Maria would know he should be in his room.  None of the other men would think it unusual for him to saddle his horse and go for a ride.

Johnny lugged his saddle and bridle to the stall where the roan mare was munching her hay.  Large brown eyes turned to look at him as he stepped inside and he began brushing her neck in even strokes as he had been doing since he was big enough to walk.  His stepfather trained horses and he had learned from watching him.

A wave of nostalgia hit him while thinking of his mother and stepfather.  He found himself missing them, especially his mother.  Even his stepfather treated him alright except on those occasions when he was bad.  Then he really got it.  A belt or a switch was his stepfather’s way of punishing him.  He couldn’t even imagine what his stepfather would have done to him for starting a fire, but he didn’t intend to stick around and find out what his father planned to do to him. So far, his father had only used his hand, but Johnny didn’t know him well enough to trust that he wouldn’t do worse….much worse.

He carefully adjusted the saddle blanket and placed the saddle on Cierra’s back.  He quickly adjusted the cinch and turned to reach for the reins and froze when he heard Teresa’s voice.

“Where are you going Johnny?”

He willed his racing heart to calm down as he steeled his features before turning to face the girl. “Just goin’ for a little ride, Teresa.”

“Can I come too?”

“No. I’m gonna be galloping and your Pa said you can’t go that fast.  Besides, Misty would never be able to keep up. She’s too small.”

Johnny suddenly felt bad at seeing tears come to her eyes.  He didn’t like deceiving anyone; especially Teresa.  She had been nice to him in his time here and she looked up to him which made him feel responsible for her.  Giving in slightly, he said, “How bout if you ride double with me to the gate.”

Teresa gave Johnny a big smile and practically jumped up and down. “Thank you Johnny!  Hurry!”

“Wait for me outside.  I’ll be along in a minute.”

After the girl left the barn, Johnny looked around for the items he would need.  He picked up a canteen. ‘Almost empty’ he thought.  He hung it over his saddle horn and tied it into place.  He looked around and saw a saddle complete with saddle bags and bed roll.  He untied it and reattached it to the cantle of his saddle.  ‘I shouda got some food, but it’s too late now.’

With a deep breath, he led his mare out into the yard.  He mounted and reached a hand down to help the waiting girl into the saddle behind him.  “Hold on, Teresa.”  He instructed as he cued the mare to trot.  As soon as they were clear of the barn area, he urged his mare into a lope, which soon had Teresa urging him to go faster.  His mare was fresh and eager to run so Johnny gave her her head.  He leaned forward as Teresa squealed in delight holding on for all she was worth.

The gate came all too soon for the young girl as Johnny slowed the mare down and finally halted just outside the gate.  “That’s far enough Teresa.  You go right back to the house.”

Teresa reluctantly slid down to the ground.  It was only about 300 yards back to the barn yard, so Johnny was confident she would be fine.  He started to turn his mare to leave Lancer, but something made him turn back.  Teresa was standing there looking at him strangely.  “What’s wrong?”  He asked.

“I wish I could go with you.” She replied.

“I’ve got somethin’ I gotta do alone.  Uh Teresa?....Don’t say nothin’. Okay?”

Teresa nodded and started slowly back to the house.  Johnny watched her until she was about half way there and then turned his mare and left the ranch heading south.

************************************************************************

Year 1 Part 3

Murdoch sent a wire to his business associates informing them of his change of plans.  He would miss the board meeting of the mining company they all had an interest in, but he gave Cleave Harper permission to vote in his absence.  He could trust Cleave to look out for both their interests.  Everything else could wait until he made a trip to Sacramento next month.

His next order of business was dealing with Johnny.  The boy had become despondent and angry as the day came for Scott to leave, and Murdoch felt responsible.  He hadn’t prepared Johnny for this day and his behavior this morning was the end result.  Not for the first time, he questioned his decision to have Scott skip the last semester at school to help with Johnny.  While he appreciated his help, and he was grateful the two brothers had become close, he realized it allowed Johnny to become attached to Scott rather than himself. He climbed into the wagon, squared his shoulders, and headed home resolved to get through to his young son as he knew the boy needed his reassurance as well as his steadying hand.

**********

Johnny slowed his mare to a walk as he topped the hill overlooking the house.  He looked back once and felt his resolve falter.  For a brief second he thought of returning, stabling his mare, and climbing the tree back into his room to await his fate with his father.  With a sigh, he turned the mare and started down the hill aware he had gone too far already, and his only choice was to keep going.

He was aware at some level this day would come.  His mother’s words kept ringing in his ears.  “He doesn’t want us.  He doesn’t love you.  He only wants to hurt me.”  All these things came back to him and try as he might, he couldn’t push them out of his thoughts.  From time to time over the last few months, as he spent time with his father, he allowed himself to believe, but that was over now.  By his actions, he knew he had proven to his father he couldn’t be trusted and he was too much trouble.  Better, he go back.  He missed his mother and he was disappointed she hadn’t come to get him in all this time.

He stopped a moment as a wave of dread washed over him.  Dread he had pushed away many times since coming to live with his father. ‘What if something happened to her?  What if she got sick?  Or worse?’  He couldn’t finish the thought as he dug his heels into the mare and reined her south once more.

Several hours later Johnny dismounted by a slow moving stream.  He led Cierra to a pool of clear water and allowed her to drink her fill.  His stomach had been grumbling for the better part of an hour and he regretted not bringing something along to fill it.  The heat of the day was beginning to take its toll as he tied the horse under the branches of a leafy tree.  He made his way up stream with his canteen and knelt down to quench his thirst.  Once sated, he emptied the canteen and refilled it with fresh cool water.

He made his way back to Cierra and decided to remove her saddle and let her graze until the heat of the day passed and they could continue.  He lugged the saddle under the tree and leaned against it idly watching the mare crop the dry grass. Feeling more alone than he had in a long time, he pulled his knees to his chest and laid his head down on them and tried to relax.

***************

Murdoch drove the wagon into the yard and gratefully turned the team over to a waiting hand.  “Gracias Ricardo. Have you seen Senor O’Brien?”  Asking after his foreman.

“Si Patron.  He is in the supply shed.”

“Gracias.”  Murdoch said as he walked toward the supply shed.

He stood in the door way as his foreman checked the inventory, “Paul, When you’re finished with that, go out and check on the men moving the herd to the east meadow.  I want to get an accurate count before we go into winter.”

“Sure thing Murdoch.”  Paul looked at his old friend. “Scott get off all right?” he fished.

“Yes, the stage left on time.”  Murdoch ran a hand through his blonde hair and looked around the small storage area. With a sigh he said, “No putting it off any longer, I guess.  I’ve got to go put Johnny right.”

Paul threw his friend a look of sympathy. “Good luck with him. Later I wanted you to check over some harness. I’m not sure if it should be repaired or replaced.”

“I’ll check it over later.” Murdoch said as he walked toward the house.

********

Murdoch climbed the stairs and stopped for a moment at Johnny’s room.  He knocked briefly and turned the key in the lock.  He pushed the door open and his eyes widened in surprise at the empty room.  He immediately noticed the fully opened window and the curtain blowing in the afternoon breeze.  Slamming the door in anger he thundered down the stairs into the kitchen.

“Maria!  Where’s Johnny?”

The woman looked at him in surprise and answered, “He is not in his room?”

“No he’s not. He climbed out his window.”

The woman who ran the house so efficiently, covered her mouth in surprise. “I have not seen him.  Perhaps he went to the barn.” She suggested hoping to defuse some of the anger she was seeing in her Patron’s face.

“He better be there.” Murdoch muttered as he headed out the kitchen door toward the barn.

Murdoch marched swiftly across the yard, his long angry strides eating up the ground.  He slid the barn door open with a bang and walked inside.  His icy angry eyes quickly scanned the barn.  Not seeing the object of his ire, he turned to the horse stalls and was confronted with the empty stall of his son’s mare.  Turning he half ran back to the supply shed to alert Paul and he quickly made plans to find his missing son.

  **********

Johnny awoke with a start to realize he had slept several hours.  Stretching out his cramped legs, he carefully stood.  Hunger and thirst caught his attention, but another need was even stronger.  He turned toward some bushes and relieved himself then walked upstream to the clear pool of water and once again drank his fill.  He splashed some water on his face to wake himself up and then dunked his head into the cool water. With a shake of his head, water flying everywhere, he felt human again and headed back to his horse.

He once more led the mare to the stream to drink and idly watched her as she licked her lips and let the water dribble from her mouth. “Come on girl, we gotta  get goin’.” He said as he turned her back toward the tree.

He saddled the mare quickly and as his hand brushed the saddle bags, he thought to check inside.  Rummaging around inside one of them, his heart beat faster and relief flooded through him as he pulled out a cheese cloth wrapped package of beef jerky.  With a smile, he bit a hunk off and chewed vigorously.  He took one more piece and replaced the rest of the jerky for later.

Feeling more hopeful than he had in hours, he mounted his mare and headed her south while enjoying the spicy meat.

**********

Murdoch and Paul reined their horses to a halt as they reached the cross roads leading toward Green River and Spanish Wells. They had stopped to question hands all along the way.  The answer had all been the same.  No one had seen Johnny.  The boy had just disappeared.  With a heavy heart and not just a little worried, Murdoch was beginning to think he was in for a long haul finding his son.

“Maybe he doubled back to the house while we were gone Murdoch.  He may have just needed some time to think.  He’ll probably be there waiting when we get back feeling bad about scaring you.”  Paul tried to reassure his frantic friend.

Murdoch’s demeanor was grim and all he said was a terse, “Maybe.” He reined his horse back to the ranch and hoped his long time friend was right. He hoped to find Johnny waiting for him in the living room, full of remorse for taking off.  Something in Murdoch’s heart made him know that his son would not be there waiting for him when he returned.

**********

The two men rode back to the house and had mixed feelings as they entered the house. Murdoch felt a wave of disappointment that Johnny was not waiting for him in the living room.

“Maria!”  He called.

“Si Senor?  Did you find him?”  She asked.

Shaking his head, Murdoch responded, “No, I was hoping he had come back.”

With a frown of concern, she said,  ‘No Senor, he has not returned.” With sagging shoulders, she returned to the kitchen.

Murdoch turned as Paul nudged his shoulder and handed him a glass of whisky.  “Here, you need this.”  Paul said simply.

Nodding his thanks, Murdoch took a large gulp and sat the glass down with a thump. “Blast it!  Where is that boy?” He said in frustration. He looked up to see Paul staring off over his shoulder. With hope, he turned and was disappointed to see it was only Teresa standing alone in the doorway.

Paul went over to his young daughter, wondering how much she heard. From the expression on her face and her wide eyes he surmised she’d witnessed it all.  Taking her hand, he led her into the room.

“What’s wrong, Papa.”

Paul knelt down to be at his daughter’s level.  He placed one hand on each of her small shoulders, and looked into her big brown eyes. “Honey, Johnny’s gone missing.  We’re really worried about him.”

Teresa’s eyes immediately dropped and she bit her lip in indecision. Paul immediately recognized his daughter’s expression. “Teresa, do you know where Johnny is? Look at me honey.”

The young girl’s eyes met her father’s and she shook her head ‘no’.  Murdoch moved closer and towered over the pair.

“Teresa, have you seen Johnny today?  Did you see him leave?”

Tears filled her eyes but didn’t spill over as she shook her head yes.   Gently her father coaxed her to tell them.  “Sweetie, Johnny may need our help. You’ve got to tell us all you know.”

With a trembling voice she quietly said, “He told me not to tell.”

“It’s important Teresa.  Where did he go? When did he leave?” Murdoch insisted.

Paul threw him a warning glance and turned back to Teresa.  “It’s going to be all right. Just tell us what you know.”

Teresa obeyed the plea in her father’s voice and told him. “Johnny left this morning, a couple of hours after you left.” She said the last to Murdoch.

“Did he say where he was going?  This is important Teresa.” Murdoch pressed.

“No.  He just said for me not to say anything.”

“Which direction did he go?”  Paul asked.

“That way.” Teresa said pointing.

“Come outside and show us.”  Paul directed.

The three of them went out the French doors and Teresa pointed in the direction Johnny went.  “South.” Murdoch said in obvious worry.  “I was kind of hoping he was heading toward Sacramento, but maybe he’s trying to go back to his mother.”

Murdoch turned to head for the barn. “Where are you going?”  Paul asked after him.

“I’m going to Spanish Wells.  I’ll ask around to see if anyone has seen him and then I’m going to send wires to all the towns between here and the border with Johnny’s description.  I’ll offer a reward for his safe return.  I’ll be hanged if I let that woman have him back!”

“Are you going to wire Scott?”

Murdoch paused a moment in thought. “No…” he said slowly. “I’ll wait a day or so and see if we can find Johnny.  I don’t want to upset Scott until I know more.”

With that, the troubled man headed to the barn to saddle his horse.  A few minutes later he rode back by the house on his big bay gelding.  He stopped to speak once more to his old friend.  “Keep things going here. We need to plan for the fall roundup.  I may be gone a few days.  Hopefully someone has seen him and I’ll be back tomorrow.  I’ll wire you from Stockton if he’s gotten that far.”  Seeing his foreman’s nod, he turned his gelding and headed south as the afternoon sun began moving toward the west.

 **************

Scott climbed down out of the stage and stretched his stiff body. It had been a long day and while the stage made good time to Sacramento, it was a tiring journey.  He looked forward to reaching the dormitory and getting settled in.

He looked down the bustling street and saw the capital building standing majestically in the background.  He hadn’t realized how much he missed that beautiful building with its domed top until now.  It was six o’clock and the sun would be starting to set in about an hour, so he decided he would walk the mile to the dormitory and enjoy being back in the city once again. He paused and went back into the stage depot.  They were getting ready to close for the evening after the arrival of the final stage, but they accepted his wire to send to Morro Coyo letting his father know he arrived safely.

With that chore done, he loaded his bag and trunk into a wagon and told the driver where to deliver them.  With a brush at his slightly dusty clothes, he headed off down the street toward the capitol building.  He was enjoying his walk as the aches and pains in his cramped legs loosened up and he suddenly felt better than he had all day.

He had left Green River with a heavy heart worried about his brother. He knew his father was angry with Johnny for starting the fire, but he also knew his father would calm down by the time he got home.  He had complete confidence that his father would handle Johnny fairly, if not sternly.  His experience with his father had given him confidence that even if he got into trouble, his father would do everything in his power to help him out, even if it meant on occasion he had to sit easy for a few days.

He smiled ruefully remembering the time, when he was about Johnny’s age,  he played a prank on his teacher that went wrong.   When his father found out about his involvement, he spanked him until he thought he’d never sit down.  In addition, he had to stay after school for a week.  He’d learned a valuable lesion from the whole experience.  Now it was Johnny’s turn.  He just hoped that his brother would understand the lesson and realize their father was only doing this for his own good.

Scott turned right at the next corner and slowed his pace a bit as he walked by the capitol rose garden.  This was a spectacular spot in the city and he enjoyed coming here to study as there were benches positioned throughout this garden spot.  His attention was drawn away from the cascade of color by two young girls heading in his direction.  They were giggling and seemed to be wrapped up in their conversation.  They looked to be about his age, so he smiled as he went past. “Good Evening Ladies.” He said as he tipped his hat.

They giggled and said, “Good Evening.”  The blonde gasped as she tripped on the uneven cobble stones and Scott immediately turned and caught her by the shoulders to help her keep her feet.  “Thank you! I can’t believe I was so clumsy.”

“That’s quite all right.  Are you alright?” Scott asked politely.

“Yes, I’m fine….except it appears I’ve broken a heel.”

Her friend picked up the heel that had caught in a crack in the cobblestone.  “Here it is.  Maybe the cobbler can reattach it.  I’m not sure how you’ll walk though.”

Scott came up with a solution.  “If you Ladies will allow me to escort you to Front Street, I’ll get you a carriage and you can ride home.  My name is Scott Lancer, by the way.”

The blonde, looked at him with startling blue eyes and smiled.  “Thank you kindly.  You’re our savior.  My name is Samantha Gordon.  My friends call me Sammi.  This is my schoolmate, Sharon.”  She said by way of introduction.

The auburn haired Sharon, extended her hand.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you Scott.”  She said as she smiled, her green eyes sparkling.

“The pleasure is all mine” He replied, kissing her hand gallantly.

Sammi was the first to recover, a blush still on her cheeks. “We attend Fair Oaks School for Girls.”

“I know of it.” He responded.  “I’m enrolled at Dayton Prep.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful. Our schools had a spring cotillion at the Edgewater Hotel.  I don’t remember seeing you.” Sharon responded with a questioning smile.

“I took the semester off.” Scott answered. “It’s a long story.  Shall we get started for Front Street?”  He smoothly changed the subject by extending an arm to each girl and moved them toward a waiting carriage.

****************

Johnny rode until he found another good watering spot.  He allowed Cierra to drink her fill and he satisfied his thirst.  He had no idea where he was but his instincts had been guiding him further away from his father’s home.  Several hours ago he had toyed with the idea of going to Sacramento to find Scott.  The only problem was he had no idea where Sacramento was.  He hoped it was south, if he came across it, he would find his brother.  If not he would just keep going until something looked familiar.

He wished he could remember more from his trip north with the Pinkerton agent, but the whole trip had been a nightmare.  The man had dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night, while another man held a gun on his parents.  He well remembered the paralyzing fear that was replaced by anger at being taken away from them.  He had fought the man all the way back to his father’s ranch.

He well remembered boarding a ship in San Diego and being locked in the cabin by the plump sweaty man.  His nightmare continued as he battled with sea sickness as the ship rocked its way through the stormy sea to Monterey.  With relief to be back on dry land, he had been manhandled all the way to his father’s ranch.  While he remembered the journey well, he didn’t really know how to retrace his steps back to Mexico on land.

With his thoughts heavy, he made camp a mile away from the trail in a thicket of brush.  With a weary sigh, he wrapped himself in his bedroll and sank into a troubled sleep.

 

***********************************************************************

Year 1 Part 4

Murdoch ran a hand over his stubble covered face.  He was exhausted and his worry about Johnny gnawed at his stomach.  His son had disappeared or at least it seemed that way.  He was starting to relive the nightmare of 10 years ago when he awoke one morning to find Maria and Johnny gone.  He couldn’t believe he could be going through this again.  When the Pinkerton’s reported they had Johnny, he hadn’t experienced such happiness since he traveled home from Boston with Scott.

He well remembered getting Johnny’s room ready himself.  It was a ritual that everyone else let him do.  He aired out the room, moved the bed to where he thought a young boy would like it.  He had new curtains and a bright new comforter made.  It gave him a sense of closeness to his soon to be reunited son.

What he wasn’t prepared for was the condition the boy was in when he arrived. He never dreamed that Maria would allow him to be abused, but it was obvious that he had been treated harshly.  He was scared of course, that was to be expected.  What he didn’t expect was how dirty and malnourished he looked.  The doctor said he was healthy enough, but he was dehydrated.  The agent had told him the boy was sea sick most of the trip from San Diego.  It didn’t account for the welts and bruises on the boy’s body.  A cold anger at Maria came over him once more that she would allow their son to be treated so badly.

Rousing himself, he headed south once more.  He had spent a restless night in Spanish Wells.  The telegraph operator had been helpful in sending out word about his missing son to all towns with stations.  The wire was lengthy and costly for the Rancher, but if it helped find his son, it was well worth it.  There was a description of the boy along with a reward offered for his safe return. He hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, that he would find his son, but he was willing to pay the reward and much more to get Johnny back.

Murdoch was following a trail south east as he wanted to go cross country instead of sticking to the main road.  He hoped to make better time that way and perhaps get ahead of Johnny if he could.  He kept an eye out for others who may be using this back trail aware that high riders and drifters often rode them too. In addition to scanning the landscape, he watched the trail for signs.  He stopped his horse abruptly when in the fine dirt on the trail, he saw that a horse had recently come onto the trail from the direction of the stream where he had recently watered his horse.

He slowly dismounted and crouched down to look at the set of hoof prints.  He drew in a sharp breath as he realized that each shoe had a distinctive cross on the bar. The farrier at Lancer marked the shoes he made with that distinctive cross and Murdoch was convinced that he was looking at the prints made by Johnny’s horse.  With his heart full of hope, he mounted and started down the trail at a trot looking forward to catching up with his son in a few hours.

***************

Johnny trotted his mare down the trail keeping an eye out for danger. He was no fool when it came to keeping an eye out for the low life’s that could be waiting for a hapless stranger.  His life in Mexico exposed him to many things most young boys never experienced, but the lessons were holding him in good stead as he made his way south.

At a young age he’d learned to be cautious and wary of other people.  Older children often picked on him and he learned quickly to get good at using his fists to defend himself.  After a few well placed blows, most of the bullies would run home.  He learned early that was something his father didn’t seem to understand.  The other boys in the area needed to learn not to crowd him, and the only way they’d learn that is if Johnny took their leader down.

Johnny stopped suddenly as he came around a corner and saw a road up ahead.  He approached it cautiously as he knew that roads meant that he was more likely to meet up with people.    He watched the road a while before he felt safe in riding down to meet it.  He sat there a moment longer trying to decide which way to go before he finally turned his horse to the right and cautiously rode in a western direction.  He hoped to eventually come to a sign so he could at least figure out where he was going.  He hoped to come to a town pretty soon where he could buy some food.  His jerky would only last till tomorrow and that’s if he rationed it carefully.  While he rode along, he kept a look out for wild berries or fruit, but so far, had only found dried up fruit all pecked by birds and insects.  The lower hanging branches had been picked clean, probably by deer, he mused.

 

He rode for another couple of hours when a larger road intersected and to his relief, he could see a sign post up ahead.  Kicking Cierra into a lope, he eagerly rode up to the sign. “Stowktown” he sounded out slowly.  He patted his mare’s neck as if to congratulate himself.  “Papa talks about it, so it must be a big place.”  Before turning in the direction of the city, he moved his mare to the other side of the sign and felt his heart thumping in his chest at seeing the sign pointing in the opposite direction.  “Sacramento” He breathed. “It’s the other way.  I been goin’ away from it all this time.”  He felt indecision.  He could head south to Stockton toward his mother, or go north to Sacramento to his brother. He decision made, he turned his mare and headed off at a steady trot.

**********

Murdoch was growing frustrated.  He had been following Johnny’s tracks all morning. He had hoped to be able to go cross country but as soon as he guessed where the boy might be heading, he turned in another direction.  He couldn’t risk losing Johnny’s trail by making the wrong guess.  It was obvious the boy didn’t know where he was going.  He would head east for a while then west but always in a southerly direction.  One thing Murdoch did know was the boy was not heading back toward Lancer and that knowledge settled in his stomach and squeezed his heart until he thought it might burst.

**************

Scott walked to his next class feeling nervous about what awaited him.  He had been able to keep up on most of his studies last semester so he could stay with his class.  The Headmaster had agreed to make the accommodation for him at his father’s request, even though some of his teachers were against it.  Over the spring, he had studied and sent in his papers for his literature and composition classes along with history and philosophy.  He had been given credit for all of those classes on the basis of the work he turned in.

The only class he still had to pass was his math class.  He had struggled with the concepts all spring with no one to help him.  His father had tried to help, but after looking over the material, he’d given up saying, “it’s all Greek to me.”  Scott knew he had a challenge to pass the final. If he didn’t pass, he would have to take the class this fall and in all likelihood would end up attending summer school in order to be qualified to attend Harvard.  More than anything, he didn’t want to let his father down.  His father was so proud of him and expected him to succeed.  This test was causing his palms to sweat and his heart to feel it was jumping out of his chest.

He stood outside the door of the math room, and wiped his hands on his pants.  He took a deep breath and entered the room hoping the last minute cramming he’d done on the stage would see him through.

“Mr. Lancer, come in and close the door.  You’re two minutes late.”  The teacher said sternly, snapping shut his time piece.

“I’m sorry Sir.  I thought I was on time.”

“Well sit down and let’s get started.  As you know, I did not approve of the Headmaster’s decision to allow you to study from home for the last semester, but I understand you had some pressing family matters.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Well then, let’s get started and see who was right, shall we?”  The math teacher handed Scott a test packet of about 30 pages.  “You have two hours to complete this test.  Please remove all items from your desk except your eraser and two pencils.”  He waited until Scott complied.  The teacher, once again opened his time piece and watched the second hand sweep around the dial. “All right, time. You may start.”

Scott took a deep breath and opened the test book.  He was relieved to see the first question was relatively straight forward.  Time seemed to stand still as he worked his way though the test.  At times he furrowed his eyebrows as he worked to dredge the formula’s from the recesses of his mind.  He breathed a sigh of relief as he worked his way down the final page.

He was in the middle of the final problem when the teacher announced “Time.  Put down your pencil and hand me the test.”

Scott followed the teacher’s directive and slowly rose and carried the test to the teacher.

“You may return in one hour to find out if you will be going to Harvard or returning to your father’s farm.”  The teacher said disdainfully.

Deciding now was not the time to antagonize the man, Scott turned and left without a word.  As he walked off some of his mad at the treatment by the teacher, his thought’s drifted back to the ranch and the family he left behind.

He found himself sitting on a bench in the courtyard of the school.  In the background he vaguely heard the sound of students heading to their next class.  With a start, he realized he’d been sitting in a daze when he heard the clock tower chime out noon.  Students began filling the campus as they gathered in small groups.  He rose and walked with trepidation back to the class room to discover his fate.  He knocked softly on the door and heard the teacher call, “Enter.”

“Well Mr. Lancer, I have to say I’m disappointed.”

Scott felt his heart fall to his stomach.  “Sir?”

I told you to return in one hour.  That was one hour and five minutes ago.  At your age, you should know how to tell time.” He admonished.

Scott felt a flush of embarrassment come to his cheeks as he sought an answer. “I’m sorry sir.  I have no excuse.” Which seemed like the only safe thing to say under the circumstances.

“Sit down, sit down.  Now for your test.  You scored an 88.  Not up to your usual standards, but you passed the class.”

“Thank you sir.” Scott said with relief, standing to leave as quickly as he could.

“I will inform the headmaster and you will be allowed to continue to the next form of math with your class.”

“Again, thank you.” Scott said as he gratefully slipped out the door.

Once outside and away from that unpleasant man, Scott felt alive and a huge weight was lifted from his shoulders.  He felt this pressing need to tell somebody, anybody would do, but he really wanted to tell his father.  He could write him a letter, but this once he would splurge and send him a wire.

He practically ran back to the station composing the wire in his head as he went.  He had to work to catch his breath once he was inside as he noticed that people were giving him strange looks.  He wrote his message several times before he was completely satisfied with it.

He waited impatiently in line for his turn and eagerly handed the missive to the operator.  “Send this to Murdoch Lancer. Lancer Ranch care of the agent in Green River.”

“Murdoch Lancer huh?”

“Yes sir, He’s my father.”

The agent looked through several pieces of paper and read one carefully. He kept glancing at Scott and then back at the page.  “I guess you’re not the one gone missing then.”

“What?”

“You don’t fit the description.”  At seeing Scott’s puzzled expression, “it says here that Murdoch Lancer is offering a five hundred dollar reward for the safe return of his 11 year old son John.”

Scott stared at the telegram the agent was holding out as he felt his world come crashing down around him.

************************************************************************

Year 1 Part 5

Scott turned blindly and rushed through the lobby. ‘I can’t breathe,’ he thought as he stumbled into two men as the pushed through the door.  He was barely aware of his surroundings as he bent over and tried to catch his breath and ease the weight on his heart.  Finally he was able to force fresh air into his lungs and the colors stopped swirling around his eyes.  He slowly stood up totally unaware of the curious looks he received from passersby’s.

He leaned against the building and took another cleansing breath as coherent thought began to return. ‘Home.  I’ve got to get home.’  With that decided, he walked with determined strides on shaky legs, and once again waited in line for the agent to send a wire that he would be home soon.

“Next.”  The little bespeckled man called from behind the counter.

Scott handed the man his hastily scrawled telegram.  “Send this to my father, Murdoch Lancer in Green River.  I’ll pay the fee to have it delivered to the Lancer Ranch.  It’s urgent.”  He finished as he pushed money under the bars of the cage.

“Just a minute.” The agent said as he scrutinized the handwriting.  He held the paper up and pointed at one of the words.  “Is that ‘hotel’ or ‘home’?

“Home.” Scott replied firmly.

With a nod, the agent scooped up Scott’s money and added, “it will go out in a few minutes.”

“Thank you.”  With that Scott turned and went to the other side of the stage depot and once again waited in line. This time it was shorter as there was only a man and his wife ahead of him.

With a sigh of relief, Scott stepped forward and asked the agent.  “When’s your next stage to Morro Coyo, or Green River?”

The agent’s bushy grey eyebrows furrowed together as he read the chart.  He ran one wrinkled finger over the times listed and tapped the page with his fingernail.  “Here.  The next stage out that way is tomorrow at nine in the morning.”

“Nothing today? It’s urgent that I get home as soon as possible.” Scott asked.

“Sorry sonny.  I don’t make the schedule.”  The man smiled insincerely.

Scott turned, disappointed, but not defeated and headed out the door and back to his dormitory.

************

Scott practically ran up the stairs to his room and began stripping off his clothes. Grateful he brought along some ranch clothes, he sat on his bed and pulled on his thick boot sock. He next threaded his long legs through his pants. Standing, he pulled them to his hips and buttoned one button to keep them up while he changed his shirt.  He buttoned his shirt and began tucking the tail into his pants when he realized he’d misbuttoned the shirt in his haste.  He tugged at the buttons trying to hurry in his frustration and managed to yank a button right off. He heard it hit the floor somewhere in his room, but he was too distracted to look for it as his anger rose and he yanked the shirt the rest of the way off.

A couple more buttons joined the first as he realized he forgot to unbutton the cuffs.  He threw the mangled shirt on the bed and found another one in his dresser.  Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to slow down, in order to dress properly. Sitting once again on the bed, he pulled his boots on. He then knelt down to the trunk at the foot of his bed, and fished around until he found the flat case in the bottom.  His father had given him one hundred dollars in case of an emergency.  He figured this classified as an emergency.  He stuffed the bills into his billfold and placed it in an inside pocket of his jacket.

With one final look around the room, he picked up his hat and headed out the door and back down the stairs.

********

Mrs. Hanson, the gray haired house mother, heard a racket coming from one of the rooms upstairs when all the boys should be in class.  She wiped her hands on a towel and went to investigate.

As she entered the foyer, she heard heavy footsteps.  She frowned at the obvious sound of one of her boys running down the stairs.  She placed her hands on her hips ready to give the errant youngster a tongue lashing, when she caught sight of the blonde hair of the Lancer boy.  “Scott Lancer!  Just what do you think you are doing?”

“Mrs. Hanson, I…ah…” Scott stopped as the words he meant to say fled him.

“Why aren’t you in school?”  Before he could answer, she asked. “And just why are you clumping down my stairs?  If I’ve told you boys once, I’ve told you a thousand times, do not run on the stairs!”

Scott looked down at the toes of his boots. “I’m sorry ma’am.”

“So what do you have to say for yourself?”

Scott met the eyes of the woman he usually could wrap around his little finger.  Just yesterday she had hugged him so hard, he thought his ribs were cracking. Today, she was demanding an explanation.  Taking a deep breath, he answered.  “I’ve got to go home.  You see, there’s a family emergency.  I don’t have time to explain right now, but my brother is missing and I’ve got to get home.”

Mrs. Hanson’s expression melted immediately into the kindly grandmotherly woman Scott had come to know.  She grasped his hand in sympathy.  “It’s going to be all right Scott.  Have you let the headmaster know?”  Before he could answer, she continued, “Of course you haven’t.  Don’t worry lad, I’ll tell him for you.”

“Thank you Mrs. Hanson.” Scott said gratefully as he headed to the door.

“Oh no you don’t.” She said as she pulled Scott with her to the kitchen.  “I’ll fix you some food to take along.  You’re too skinny as it is and you’ve grown a mile since last year.”

Scott smiled gratefully at her and shifted impatiently from foot to foot as she packaged up some biscuits and quickly made a thick roast beef sandwich to take along.  She handed him the food in a flour sack and gave him a peck on the cheek.  “Be careful boy and let me know when you find your brother.”

“Thank you again…for everything.” Scott said and he quickly left the dormitory and half ran to the nearest livery stable.

*******

Scott rushed through the barn doors.  “I need your best horse.”

The livery owner looked the young man over critically.  He recognized Scott, as from time to time the young man would rent a horse for a Saturday ride, but today he looked disheveled and distracted.  “You running from the law, son?” He asked.

“No, I just need a good horse so I can get home fast.  My younger brother is missing and I have to get home as soon as possible.  Is the black available?”  Scott asked knowing it was the finest horse in the stable and he had rented the fast gelding several times.

“Yes it is. You just bring him back when you can.”  The livery owner said as Scott dropped money into the man’s hand.

With in just a few minutes the blonde boy and the strong black gelding were trotting down the busy streets of Sacramento unaware of the eyes watching them.

************

Johnny kept Cierra at a steady trot.  He had abandoned the road.  It was too open and he felt too exposed and vulnerable.  He rode along the edges of the tree line trying to head in the right direction while keeping an eye out for company.  From the little he knew about Sacramento, he knew he would have to get up his courage to ask directions to Scott’s school once he got there.

At least he remembered the name of the school and the dormitory Scott lived in.  While he had tried to block out all conversation in the last few weeks concerning Scott’s return to school, the hated name of the school that was taking his brother from him was emblazoned in his memory.  Dayton….the only name that brought more fear of losing his brother was that dreaded Harvard, somewhere back east where Scott would go next year and be gone for years.  Just the thought made Johnny’s heart beat faster and he had to wipe his sweaty palms on his pants leg.

Clicking to his mare, he loped her over a rise and then allowed her to trot back down another hill.  Coming around a narrow corner through a rock outcropping, his mare suddenly stopped and snorted.  Johnny had to grab a hold of her mane to keep himself in the saddle as they came face to face with a flock of Canadian Geese walking toward them. They had their wings lowered and were hissing angrily at the pair and Cierra started  dancing nervously in place.  “Easy girl.” Johnny whispered as he tried to calm his mare.

He urged her toward the geese, and reluctantly, the mare took a couple of steps forward before balking once more.  Her movement was enough to force the territorial birds off to the side and Johnny was able to get Cierra to prance past them. She was snorting and blowing and had her nose tucked into her chest as Johnny fought with her to keep her from running away.

As he went past the angry flock they continued to hiss at him and he breathed a sigh of relief as they got clear of the cranky the birds.  He glanced over his shoulder and smiled at the sight of the birds walking menacing toward him their long gray necks snaking out hissing like rattle snakes.  His amusement didn’t last long as an unseen gander rushed out of the bushes on his right and nipped Cierra on her belly.  The mare squealed in surprise, whirled and dumped a surprised Johnny on the ground.

Johnny sat there for just a moment in shock, before scrambling up and running away from the aggressive birds after the now departing mare.  He ran a hundred yards to safety and turned back to make sure the birds weren’t after him.  He watched them gather in a group as they seemed to be laughing at him and celebrating their victory.

Brushing the dirt off his rear end, he walked dejectedly off in the direction of his scared horse.

***************

Murdoch got off his gelding and crouched down to carefully study the many hoof prints in the ground up dirt.  He suddenly felt a bit ill at the thought that he might not be able to tell if Johnny turned north or south.  He tied his horse to the sign post and began walking along the road toward Stockton.  He hoped he wouldn’t see any hoof prints with the cross on them, but he wanted to check it out carefully.

Seeing no sign that his son went south, he retraced his steps and headed the other way.  Stopping once again by the sign post, he could see that Johnny had walked his horse on both sides of the post, but then his horse’s hoof prints were lost in the deeper dirt on the road mingled with all the others.  Untying his horse, he mounted and headed north hoping to find a sign that his son went that way.

Murdoch rode slowly for about fifteen minutes constantly searching the ground.  The road had heavy loose dirt along it and would not hold the shape of a hoof print.  He tried to keep faith that he was going in the right direction, but told himself, he would need to turn back if he didn’t find any trace of his son soon.

His hope began to wane as another half hour went by and he couldn’t make out any sign of Johnny.  He was getting ready to pull up, when he came across some horse manure that appeared to be fairly recent.  He got off and kicked the somewhat moist balls around, relief washed over him when he saw little bits of oats mingled in  the manure.  He had found oats in  the manure he had found earlier.  With renewed hope, he mounted again and continued down the trail.

Wiping a hand over his sweaty face, he wondered how far ahead of him the boy was.  He didn’t dare just head for Sacramento in case Johnny ran into trouble or turned off somewhere.  He looked down again and stopped his horse as he saw distinct hoof prints once more in the thin dirt.  He crouched down and breathed a sigh of relief as he recognized the cross from the Lancer blacksmith.

With his hands stretching out his aching back, he climbed up on his horse and started at a trot down the rode toward Sacramento.

*********

An hour later, Murdoch still hadn’t caught up with Johnny and he began to worry. He hadn’t seen the boy’s sign for awhile now, so he halted and got off to look more closely.  With a disappointed sigh, he reached for his canteen and took a couple of long swallows before pouring some in his hat to offer to the gelding.  Once their needs were taken care of, Murdoch turned his mount back in the direction he had just come and began backtracking to find where his son had left the road.

Forty five minutes later, Murdoch cursed himself as he found where Johnny had left the road.  Now he was once again hours behind his son and tracking over the soft grass was going to slow him down even more.  The only saving grace was it was fall and the grass had dried out into yellow stalks.  He was relieved when he saw the broken stems where Johnny’s horse passed through.

Another two hours went by when Murdoch halted his horse at a small pond and allowed the animal to drink his fill.  He refilled his canteen and watched the antics of the Canadian Geese who had claimed this pond as their winter headquarters.  Mounting once more, he continued on his way hoping to catch sight of his boy soon.

************

Johnny walked along cursing himself, his horse, the damned geese and anyone else he could think of in both Spanish and English.  His vocabulary had grown since coming to California as he had picked up some new swear words from the cowboys at his father’s ranch.  While swearing in English was okay, swearing in Spanish was much more satisfying.

He planned all sorts of tortures for Cierra as he walked along.  He’d teach her not to abandon him, he thought.  He picked up a stick and threw it in frustration, knowing he wouldn’t really do any of it, but it gave him something to think about as he walked after the mare.

His thirst getting the better of him, he began studying the terrain more intently until he spotted greenery in the distance.  He was rewarded with the sight of a slow running stream and he scrambled down the bank to reach it.  Drinking his fill, he washed his face and was tempted to sit in the shade of the trees and rest, but he drove himself to continue searching for his horse.

Movement caught his eye and there she was!  Grazing peacefully on the grass still made lush by the nearby stream, Johnny walked slowly toward her, holding his hand out with some freshly picked grass. “Easy girl, come here.”  He called quietly.

The mare sidled away and Johnny froze when he heard a man’s voice say, “Do you need some help there?”

Johnny turned and looked at the man sitting on the big horse. One hand resting on the saddle horn looking at him with amusement.  He made a move to turn and run, when his father’s voice said, “Oh no you don’t.  You stay right there.”

Johnny involuntarily obeyed the now familiar voice and he was quickly enveloped in his father’s huge arms as he was pulled into an embrace. His father pushed him away and held him by the shoulders.  He forced Johnny to look him in the eye, and he said. “You are in big trouble young man.”

Johnny’s eyes quickly dropped to the ground as he gulped and in a small voice said the words, that devastated his father once more, “Are…are you going to beat me?”

************************************************************************

Year 1 Part 6

Murdoch dropped to his knees, stunned speechless by his son’s words. “Johnny, look at me.”  He gently lifted Johnny’s chin until the boy’s blue eyes met his own.  “Son, I will never beat you.  You have my word on that.”  He waited a moment and as soon as he moved his hand, Johnny’s eyes were looking at the ground.  Murdoch could feel small tremors running through the young boy as he held him.

Hoping to reassure his son, he drew him close in a tight embrace. He then stood on somewhat shaky legs and with one hand firmly on Johnny’s shoulder, steered him to a fallen log.  Settling them both down, he pulled Johnny close to his side once more. “Johnny, I was so worried about you.  Why did you run off like that?”

He waited and was met only with silence. “Son, look at me.” He waited until Johnny was once again looking at him.  “Did you think I would beat you for starting that fire?”

Again silence from his young son.  He could tell that Johnny’s emotions were running high as he could still feel the tremor running through the boy.  Murdoch was determined to get to the bottom of this before they went any further.  Something told him that if they didn’t come to an understanding, the boy would run away again.

“Johnny you can tell me, I won’t be angry.”

Johnny’s words were almost too quiet to hear. “I’m bad.” He looked down and began twisting the end of his belt. “I um…I deserve gettin’ beat for startin’ the fire.”  Johnny looked up at his father and then down again quickly.

Murdoch looked at the bowed dark head for a moment in exasperation. “Johnny, you are not bad.  Do you hear me son?  You are not bad.” He repeated slowly and very clearly trying with everything he had to make sure the boy understood. “What you did was wrong.  Starting a fire was wrong; running away was wrong.  I’m not happy with what you did, but I love you very much.  Do you see the difference?”

The dark head raised once more and Murdoch held his breath to see if he had gotten through to the boy.  A shaky voice asked, “You…love…me?”

Once more Murdoch drew Johnny to him. “I love you son.  I always have.  If I didn’t tell you or show you when you came home, that’s my fault. I was so happy when I heard the Pinkerton agents had found you…” He stopped at seeing the look of terror on Johnny’s face.

Johnny pulled away from him and started to stand up.  The only thing that kept him in place was his father’s hand on his arm. “No! Let go of me!”  Johnny shouted.

“What is it?  Tell me Johnny.” Murdoch pleaded.

Johnny began struggling to get away flailing his arms and his small fists connected with anything he could reach.  Murdoch grappled with his struggling son as the boy’s small fist connected with his jaw once and he felt several stabbing blows to his chest and legs. ‘This boy packs a punch for a kid.’ Murdoch thought as he slowly gained control of his son.

Murdoch finally had Johnny subdued and he just held the boy as Johnny gasped for breath and Murdoch waited for him to calm down.  After several minutes, Murdoch lowered his face so he could get a better look at him and he was shocked to see that Johnny was crying.  In the last year he had never seen Johnny cry.  Even during or after a spanking, the boy was dry eyed.  He had always had a concern that the boy’s hold on his emotions was too tight.  Now it was like a floodgate had opened and his son was crying like he was mourning the loss of someone he loved.

Tears streamed down Johnny’s face and his shoulders shook as he let loose the hurt and despair he had been plagued with for the last few months. Murdoch began running his large work callused hand down Johnny’s back to sooth and reassure him.  “Let it all out son.  It’s going to be alright.  I’ll take care of you.  You’re going to be just fine.” He crooned as to a frightened horse.

Johnny finally took a couple of hiccupping breaths and wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes. Murdoch handed him his handkerchief and Johnny used it to wipe his face and blow his nose. He went to hand it back saying a small, “Thanks.”

Murdoch smiled slightly at the used handkerchief, “No, you keep it son.”

Murdoch was rewarded with a small answering smile.

“Johnny are you hungry?”

Johnny flashed him a smile, “Starving!”

“Well, it’s getting pretty late in the day to start home, so I propose we make camp right here for the night and we’ll get going early in the morning.  How about you gather some firewood while I take care of the horses and get something fixed to eat.”

“You want me to start the fire for ya?” Johnny asked with that grin that just asked for trouble.

Marveling at his son’s resilience, he replied.  “No son, I’ll take care of the fire, you just go gather up the wood. I think that would be best, don’t you?”

“Yes sir.”  Johnny said and immediately began gathering wood for the fire.  Murdoch chuckled and headed out into the meadow to catch Johnny’s mare.

*****************

Scott kept the black to the main road figuring to cut cross country once he was over the river.  He hoped the ferry would be running when he got there and as he rode, he tried to keep his fear for his brother at bay.  He looked down and could see the sweat building up in a lather on the geldings neck, so he pulled him back to a ground covering trot in order to let him catch his breath.

Scott tried to post in the saddle to relieve the bone jarring gait and when that didn’t help much; he stood in the stirrups to get a little relief.  He could see the sparking water of the river ahead and once again sent up a prayer that he would catch the ferry just right.  He knew from experience that if he missed it, it would be a two hour wait

He crested the hill and saw the ferry docked below him.  He urged his mount to a gallop and quickly descended the grade. A wagon was being loaded as he rode up and jumped off the gelding.  “Room for one more?” he asked.

“Ya got two bits and I’ll take ya across.” The riverman replied.  As they were getting the wagon lashed down, Scott led the nervous horse onto the rocking barge.  “Stay at his head and hold him still.” The older man instructed.  He handed Scott a gunny sack. “If he’s too fractious, cover his eyes with this.”

The men were untying the ferry from the moorings when they heard someone shout. “Wait up!”

“Looks like we got two more.” The riverman announced.

Two men on lathered bays rode down the embankment in a rush.  “Ya got room for two more?”

“Yes sir, we can fit ya in, but ya gotta take hold of them horses cause it’s gonna be a tight squeeze.”

Scott watched as the two dusty men maneuvered their horses onto the ferry and heard them greet the wagon driver and his wife. Scott felt a warning go off in his head, but try as he might he couldn’t place the men…at least not right then.

The crossing went fairly well with just one mishap. Scott was able to keep the black distracted by scratching his neck and keeping his head turned toward him.

It was one of the wagon horses that spooked. The farmer grabbed hold of the harness and tried to calm the frightened animal.  It’s other team member also began to spook and the man clearly couldn’t handle both horses.  The woman began screaming at her husband to do something and before long, all the horses were acting up.

The riverman yelled, “Get them horses still.  We’ll tip over if ya don’t!”

Scott tossed the burlap sack to the farmer and he quickly subdued one horse.  One of the other passengers was able to help with the other horse.  The man turned to Scott. “Quick thinkin’ boy.”

Scott got his first good look at the man and his heart sunk.  Before he could say anything, the man continued.  “Well, Well, Well.  If it ain’t Mr. Murdoch Lancer’s fancy son. What are you doin’ out here all alone boy?’

“That’s my business, Harris.” Scott said stiffly.

“Just like your old man you are. Too good to talk to us common folk.  Hey Tucker, Old man Lancer’s kid is takin’ a ride with us.”

“We part company as soon as we’re off this ferry Harris. I don’t want anything to do with you.”

“Big talk from a kid not old enough to shave yet.”  He reached out to touch Scott’s cheek and Scott ducked out of the way.

Scott was grateful for the yell from the ferry operator that they were getting ready to dock.  He planned to get his horse off first and be on his way quickly before those other men could stop him.  They made his skin crawl and he knew his father had fired them a couple of months ago for ditching their work. His father suspected they had rustled some cattle as well.

As the ferry bumped to the dock, Scott barely waited for the ramp to be lowered before he had his horse off the ferry.  As soon as they both were on dry ground, Scott mounted and set off at a swift lope with them men calling behind him to wait up.

**************

The sun was starting to head down behind the hills to the west as Murdoch finished setting up camp for the night.  Johnny had eaten like a hungry bear cub and he was grateful to Maria for packing enough food for a week.

Once the boy was settled on his bedroll, Murdoch intended to bring up the subject that had been nagging at him since earlier in the day.  The boy had something eating at him and like an infected wound, he wasn’t going to start healing until it was all cleaned out.

Murdoch added another branch to the fire and walked over to where Johnny was sitting.  He stood and watched his son roll a smooth river rock over and over in his hand as though memorizing the bumps and ridges in the green stone.  He carefully lowered his large frame to the ground and stretched his long legs out.  He began talking to Johnny quietly.  “I remember the first time you, me and your mother camped out like this.   We were going to Sacramento to get supplies for the ranch.  Back then, anything more than a sack of flour had to be picked up there.  Barges would bring supplies up the river from San Francisco and people would flock to Sacramento from all around to get their goods.”

He waited and watched Johnny juggle the rock a bit longer before continuing. “You were about a year old.  You’d just gotten your legs a couple months before, but you went right from crawling to running, or so it seemed to your mama and me.”

Johnny smiled.  “So I got to camp out with ya?”

“Yes.  You started off next to your mama, all wrapped up.  It was a clear warm night and the stars were so bright.  We all lay there on our backs, looking at the stars.  I remember, there were a lot of shooting stars that night and each time you saw one, you’d point and giggle.  Before long, you drifted off to sleep.  I remember that night so well, because I was a happy man that night, under the stars with my wife and son.”

“I still like shooting stars.” Johnny offered into the awkward silence.

“Good to hear, maybe we’ll see some tonight.”  Murdoch decided to continue with his story.  “Sometime during the night, I reached over for your mother’s hand.  I must of still been partly asleep, but I bolted awake at the feel of this tiny hand in my own. It scared me to death at first until I realized you had crawled between us, and I held your tiny hand for the rest of the night.”

“You loved us back then.” Johnny stated quietly.

“I loved you both very much.” Murdoch assured.

Johnny sat, hands finally still, biting his lower lip. Murdoch had to lean down to catch his son’s whispered words, “How come you didn’t want us later?  Why did you want us to leave?”

‘This is it.’ Murdoch thought as his heart pounded uncomfortably in his chest. “Son, I never wanted you to leave.  Is that what your mother told you?  That I wanted you to leave?”

Johnny’s dark head just nodded.

“What did she say son?”

“Just that…um…you didn’t want us no more.  You didn’t need us no more.”

Tears once more started down Johnny’s cheeks as Murdoch struggled with the white hot anger he had held in check for Maria. ‘How could she tell such a lie?  Why would she hurt Johnny like that?’  Taking a deep breath, he said the only thing he could under the circumstances. “Johnny, I never wanted you to leave…or your mother.  I can’t explain why she left, but you have to believe me when I say that I have always loved and wanted you.  Do you believe me son?”

Johnny took a shuddering breath and once again wiped his eyes with his shirt sleeve. He nodded once more and said a quiet, “Yes, I believe you.”

“Son, I searched for both of you for a very long time.  I finally hired the Pinkerton’s to find you and bring you home.  I…”  Murdoch stopped when he realized for the second time his son had reacted when he mentioned the Pinkertons.

With a sudden flash of insight, he asked. “What happened?  What happened when the Pinkerton’s found you?  Tell me son.”

In a small monotone voice, Johnny began relating the terror of that night.  “I was asleep and I woke up to men shouting.  They broke our door down.  Mama was holding me behind her and wouldn’t let them have me.”  Johnny shuddered as Murdoch closed his eyes imagining the terror the Pinkerton agents reigned on his young son and his son’s mother. “One of them had a gun. He held it on my stepfather and the other one, the fat one told me to get dressed.  You’re father wants to see you, he said.”  Once again Johnny shuddered in remembrance.  “He grabbed me and took me with him.  The last I saw of mama was her being shoved to the floor and told not to come after me.  She was crying and calling me to come back…but I couldn’t get away.”

“I’m so sorry Johnny.  I’m so sorry. It was all my doing.  I wanted you home so bad that I didn’t think about how they were going to do it. I…I didn’t realize they would be so rough.”

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out.  “I don’t like to think about it, ya know?  It’s hard remembering it. Remembering her like that.”  Johnny was quiet for a minute and Murdoch thought he wasn’t going to say anymore, but he was wrong. “I miss her. I worry somethin’ happened to her.  Do you think she’s alright?”

Murdoch’s heart felt like it was breaking with the knowledge he had a hand in creating the hurt he saw in his son’s eyes and he could see clearly why the boy had bonded so strongly with his older brother.  He had been cast adrift in his father’s world and he had clung to Scott like a life preserver.

“Johnny, your mother is fine.  I would have heard if something had happened to her.”

“Are you sure?”  Hopeful blues eyes locked with his own.

“Yes son, I would have heard.”  Even though Murdoch despised the idea, he added. “If you would like to send her a letter, I’ll make sure she gets it. You could let her know how you’re doing.”

Johnny smiled then yawned.  “I’d like that.”

“You’re all done in.” Murdoch said pulling back the covers. “Crawl in here and get some shut eye.”

Johnny did as his father told him and as Murdoch started to walk away, a soft voice stopped him. “Te amo, papa.”

Murdoch smiled and replied. “I love you too, Johnny. Goodnight.”

************************************************************************

Year 1 Part 7

Murdoch awoke early to a chilly breeze blowing through the trees.  He rubbed his face and grimaced at the stubble on his cheeks and the sand in his eyes.  He blew out a deep breath and thought about the long day ahead.  He felt drained from the past two days of first desperately searching for Johnny, then helping his son see through the lies that had plagued their relationship.

He glanced over to the small form near the fire and smiled.  He felt he’d made a lot of progress yesterday in understanding his son and he hoped the days ahead would only strengthen that bond.  While he was grateful for Scott’s help the last several months, now was the time when he and Johnny could become truly father and son.

Murdoch groaned as he stood up and stretched the kinks out of his stiff back.  He walked over to the fire and carefully added some small twigs until the embers came to life.   He set the coffee pot in the fire and got out the frying pan he always carried when he traveled.  Within minutes, he had a passable trail breakfast started and he roused Johnny.

Shaking him slightly, “Johnny, wake up son.”

Johnny rolled over and blinked a couple of times and then smiled at seeing his father looming over him. “Morning,” he muttered.

“Good morning son.  Why don’t you head on over to the stream and get washed up.  We’ll have a bite to eat and hit the trail early.  If we push a bit, we can be home by late afternoon.”

“Okay.” Johnny agreed rolling out of his bedroll and he looked at his father with an expression Murdoch couldn’t read.

Murdoch smiled a bit at his disheveled son as he rubbed his eyes.  He looked like he was six years old right now. His hair was sticking up in all directions and his shirt was half tucked into his pants.  One sock was turned backwards, coming off his foot, and it was  none too clean at that.  ‘Maria’s going to have a few choice words when we get back.’ He predicted.

*************

Johnny returned from the stream looking a bit more presentable.  Murdoch gave him a once over and decided he was clean enough for breakfast, though his unruly hair was only sticking up a bit less than when Johnny rolled out of bed.

As Murdoch handed Johnny a plate of beefsteak, Johnny smiled and nodded his thanks. “This’ll stick to our ribs.”  Murdoch added.

Johnny just nodded through a mouthful of steak and as he started to take a bite of biscuit, Murdoch warned him, “Swallow.  Here take a drink.” He handed him a tin cup of water. “Johnny, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you son.” Murdoch’s voice had a tremor of laughter in it.

“What do ya mean?”

“It seems I’ve got to watch you like a hawk or you get yourself into some kind of trouble.”

Johnny could tell his father wasn’t mad…he seemed…almost joking.  Johnny glanced at him, puzzled by his father’s words.  “I can take care of myself.” He stated.

Again, Johnny noticed that his father seemed to be struggling to hide a smile, as he said, “Yes…I could see that yesterday.”

Johnny knew when he was being teased, and he felt a bit irritated by it, but decided now wasn’t the time to talk back to his father.  He felt a lot better since their talk last night, but he knew he still had punishment coming from his escapades the last couple of days.  As the steak and biscuits settled, they felt like bricks in his stomach.  He frowned as he idly moved the fork around on the empty plate.

“Something wrong son?” Murdoch asked as he took the plate away from Johnny.

“No…well…I was just thinkin’.”  Johnny paused and his stomach did another flip.  He knew he couldn’t ride all the way back to the ranch wondering what his punishment was going to be and at the same time, he was afraid to ask.  Clearing his throat, he said quietly, “I was wonderin’ what my punishment is going to be?”

Murdoch’s eyebrows raised and he asked. “What do you think your punishment should be for setting a fire in the house and running away?”

Almost too quiet to hear, Johnny mumbled, “I don’t know.”

Johnny’s head was bowed and his shoulders shook just a little as he waited for his father to decide his fate.  He didn’t have to wait long when he heard the words he had been dreading. “Come over here.”

Johnny slowly rose and walked over to where his father sat on a log.  His father took hold of his arm and pulled him gently in front of him.  Johnny couldn’t meet his father’s eyes and kept his head bowed. The ground below him blurred as unbidden tears sprung to his eyes.

“Son, I had planned to give you a spanking you wouldn’t soon forget,” he stopped as Johnny’s shoulders slumped.  He lifted Johnny’s chin so he could look into his son’s eyes, and continued. “You know it was wrong to set a fire or do anything else destructive, don’t you?”

“Yes sir.”  Johnny replied.

“You can talk to me, or Maria, or Paul, if you are upset about something. We all love you and want you to be happy.  Running away doesn’t solve anything son.  Do you understand?”

“Yeah…I do now.” Johnny looked at his father hopefully.  He didn’t want to wait to be punished until they got home, but he knew riding home would be uncomfortable.  He hoped his father would make the decision and make it soon, as he felt like he was going to lose his breakfast if he didn’t.

“Alright. We’re in agreement. I’ve decided that your punishment is going to be an early bedtime for a month, and you will clean out the chicken coup once a month for the rest of the year.”

Johnny’s look of surprise caused Murdoch to break out in a smile, but his next words sent a chill down Johnny’s spine.  “I’m not done.  You will set and clear the table for Maria every night.”

“For how long?”  Johnny said with despair.

“That’s your new chore, you will do it every night.”

“But that’s women’s work!”  Johnny exclaimed.

“You are on very thin ice, young man.” Murdoch warned.  “If you ever run away again, I will spank you so hard, you won’t be able to sit down for a week.  Is that clear?’

Johnny felt his cheeks flush through his tan at his father’s words. “Yes sir, it’s clear.”

“Alright, good.  Let’s go home.”  Murdoch smiled and patted Johnny on the shoulder.

*************

Scott mentally kicked himself once again as he booted a rock down the trail.  ‘Of all the stupid things to have happen.  Those damned geese!’  He once again cursed the flock that had practically attacked his horse as he rode into their territory.

His rented horse spooked and did a 180, dumping him unceremoniously on the ground.  The last he saw of the horse, he was galloping down the trail back to Sacramento. ‘Good riddance.’ Scott thought in disgust and began laughing at himself.  He left Sacramento to rescue his little brother, and instead landed himself in a jam.  ‘Some hero.’ He thought as he kicked the rock again.  Instead of being a help in finding Johnny, at this rate, he was going to be another problem for his father to take care of.

He shrugged his shoulders and continued down the trail in the direction his horse had taken.  He kept a wary eye out for Harris and Tucker.  He hoped they’d decided he wasn’t worth their trouble as he had headed out at a gallop long before they had disembarked from the ferry.  With luck, they had long ago passed by the spot where he had left the road and he’d find his horse grazing just up ahead.

With hopeful thoughts he continued walking, figuring if worse came to worse, he’d make his way to the stage road and hitch a ride on the next stage to come by.

**********

Late that afternoon, Johnny and Murdoch trotted their tired mounts down the hill to the ranch house.  Both felt relief at seeing the house and barns from the ridge and were eager to get home.

As they pulled up in front of the house, Teresa yelled, “They’re home!  Maria!  They’re home!”  She practically ran into Johnny knocking him a step back as he dismounted on tired legs.  “Oh Johnny, I was so afraid. Are you okay?”

Johnny uncharacteristically hugged the girl back, “I’m fine Teresa, now let go a me!”

Maria came rushing out of the house and took Johnny in a big hug. “Juanito!  We were so worried!”  As soon as she was reassured the boy was in one piece she began swatting his behind. “You will never, never run away again!” She punctuated each word with a swat until the boy was grateful that his father pulled him away to safety.

“Do you have anything for two hungry men to eat?” he asked Maria.

“Si Patron.  I will fix something.  It will be ready as soon as you wash up and Senor Paul has something importante to speak to you about.”

***********

“Murdoch, Johnny. Welcome back.”  Paul said as he gave his old friend a questioning look.  He sat down and accepted a glass of cool lemonade from Maria. “Gracias Maria.” He smiled as he took a sip.

Murdoch looked at Paul and smiled to reassure him all was well. “Maria said you had something important to tell me?”

Not wanting to talk in front of Johnny, he replied. “It can wait a few minutes.  It’s ranch business.”

“I’m all done.”  Johnny said as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He pushed his chair back and began to make a quick escape when he heard his father clear his throat.  He stopped and looked questioningly at his father.

“Johnny, aren’t you forgetting something?”  Murdoch nodded toward the dirty plates.

“It ain’t supper.  You said supper.”

“Johnny…”

“Alright.” Johnny agreed, recognizing his father’s tone.  He began to clear the table to the total amazement of Maria and Paul.

“Let’s go into the living room.”  Murdoch suggested.

Murdoch poured two glasses of whisky and handed one to Paul. “What’s up?” He asked as he took a sip of the smooth malt.

Paul pulled out a folded telegram from his pocket. “This was delivered a little while ago. It’s from Scott.”

Murdoch unfolded the paper and read with dismay.  Crumpling the paper, he said. “What the devil does that boy think he’s doing?  Leaving school like that?”

“Somehow he must have found out about Johnny and decided to come home.”

Murdoch sat down on the couch. “He should have waited until I wired him. Well Scott and I are due for a little talk when he gets here.  He should be in late tonight or early tomorrow and I intend to make myself very clear with that boy.”

Paul smiled thinking that Scott was going to be in for an unaccustomed ear blistering at the least when he arrived home.

*************

Scott pulled up short when he heard Tucker’s unpleasant voice. “Lordy, Lordy. What do we have here?  Mr. Fancy Boy Lancer hoofin’ it back down the trail.”

Before Scott could react, Harris jumped down behind him and wrested him to the ground. For a minute, Scott thought he could handle him, but when Tucker joined the fray, he knew he was lost.  He felt himself being hauled to his feet by his jacket, Tucker held him while Harris quickly tied his hands tightly in front of him.

“Boy.  You give us any trouble and your Daddy’s gonna get you back in pieces.” Harris breathed.

“You’re going to regret this. My father will hunt you down if anything happens to me.” Scott warned.

“Don’t worry boy. We’re not going to hurt one little hair on your head…if you behave yourself.” With that, Harris shoved Scott to the waiting horses.

Scott made a move toward the black gelding the pair had intercepted. “Not that one boy.  You take Tucker’s piece of crow bait.” Shoving him toward the unthrifty bay.

Scott struggled into the saddle and was barely settled when the pair of thieving scum pulled his horse by the reins into a lope heading south in the direction of Lancer.

***********

Murdoch stood in the yard the next morning giving orders to several men when he noticed a rider coming.  He shielded his eyes from the glare of the morning sun, expecting to see Scott, but instead he recognized Jimmy, the boy who delivered messages from Green River riding through the gate.

“Jimmy, you’re out early.”

“Yes sir Mister Lancer.  I was told this was real important.”  He handed the folded paper to Murdoch.

Murdoch unfolded the paper and read the badly written demand. ‘BRANG 1,000 IN GOLD TO BIG OAK TOMOREY NOON. COME ALON, NO GUNS OR YER PRETY BOY WILL GET SENT HOME IN PIECS.’

With shaky voice, Murdoch asked. “Who gave this to you?”

“I don’t know Mister Lancer, he looked kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place him.”

“Thank you Jimmie, if you remember or see him again, let me know.”

“Yes Sir.” Jimmie replied as he stuffed the dollar in his pocket that Murdoch had tossed him.

Murdoch turned blindly and practically ran back to the house, shouting for Paul.  He didn’t see the little dark headed boy hide behind the curtains in the living room as he thundered into the house.

************************************************************************

Year 1  Part  8

Murdoch was pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace when Paul rushed through the door.  “What’s wrong?” He asked the obviously upset man.

“This.  This is what’s wrong!” Murdoch handed a piece of paper to his friend.

Paul read the paper and couldn’t believe his eyes. “Scott’s being held for ransom?  I can’t believe it!”

Murdoch sat on the couch and ran his hands over his face. “This is all my fault.  I should have waited to send those telegrams.  Not only would Scott have stayed at school, he wouldn’t have been in danger from any two bit shyster.”

“Two bit?  A thousand dollars is a lot.”

“I’d pay anything to get Scott back safely.”  Murdoch stood up and grabbed his hat. “I’m going to ride into Green River.  I sure hope the bank has enough gold coins on hand.” He shook his head once.  “Do you know how heavy that will be?  I doubt the scum  even realize that.”

“I’ll go with you.  You’d be an easy target with that much gold.”

“Paul.”  Murdoch called stopping his foreman.  “You stay here, keep an eye on Johnny.  If he asks, tell him I’ll be back by supper.  I don’t want him to know about any of this.  He’ll just worry.”

Paul nodded his understanding, “I’ll have Raul saddle your horse and ready a pack horse. Cipriano’s at the barn, he can ride in with you.”

“Good thinking.  Thanks Paul.”

*************

After the men left the living room, Johnny stayed wrapped in the heavy folds of the curtains.  He felt stunned at the news that his brother was in danger.  ‘My brother is in danger because of me.’  His thoughts went round and round as he tried to think of some way to help.

After what seemed like hours, Johnny slowly peeked around the curtains and breathed a sigh of relief at the room being empty.  With a sudden listlessness, he wandered over to the couch and sat down.  His mind was churning around and around the fact that Scott was missing and in danger.

He noticed a piece of paper on the coffee table and idly reached out to pick it up. The words swam before his eyes as he read how Scott would be returned safely for $1,000 in gold.  He hoped his father could get that much.

‘Tommarey?....Oh that’s tomorrow, noon at Big Oak.’  Johnny thought that sounded familiar.  He was pretty sure it was on the ranch, because he remembered Scott mentioning it. His heart beat faster at the thought of Scott so close and in danger.  He thought and thought.  ‘Caves. Scott told me there were some good caves to explore up above there.’  When he had asked to go up and explore them their father had said no.  It was too dangerous.’

Johnny pushed off the couch and decided to find out for himself where this Big Oak place was.  He thought about riding up there today to wait for his brother, but remembered his promise to his father.  He knew his father would get Scott back…still there’s no harm in being sure. Johnny rolled his plans over and over in his mind until he was certain it was foolproof.

He’d be joining his father tomorrow to rescue Scott.  If his father didn’t need help, he’d slip back to the house to wait for them to return.  If his father did need help, he’d be there and he’d be ready.

Johnny walked out to the barn keeping an eye out for Paul.  While he liked Paul immensely, the man was just a little too much like his own father to suit him.  He knew the man would be watching him like a hawk today and he meant to stay out of his way.

Johnny saw just the person he was looking for when he arrived at the barn.  Pedro was past his prime and spent a good part of his day tending lovingly to his garden of chili peppers and tomatoes.  Johnny enjoyed his company, and had found the man was full of stories.

He often told Johnny about the early days of California.  The fine Californios, their grand haciendas, and fiestas intrigued Johnny.    He’d sat enthralled as Pedro told him of the Ventura family who had once owned the hacienda and land his father now owned.  But it was always the horses that caught his attention the most.  Pedro told him about all the fine horses and horsemen who once graced this fine hacienda.

“Hola, Pedro, Como esta usted?”

“Bien, Juanito, bien.”

Johnny sat on a bale of straw watching as the old man deftly braided the rawhide into the beginnings of a bosal.  Johnny pulled a piece of straw out of the bale and absentmindedly chewed on it.  Pedro handed him some rawhide and Johnny’s nimble fingers began braiding as Pedro had painstakingly taught him.

They sat in comfortable silence for half an hour. Pedro only stopped braiding long enough to check over Johnny’s work or hand him a colored piece of rawhide to add to the intricate pattern that Johnny was creating.  Finally Johnny asked his question.  “Have you heard of a place called big oak?”

The old man stopped and looked at the Patron’s youngest son. “Si.  It’s a big meadow below the bluffs about ten miles south of here.  Why Chico do you ask?’

Johnny began braiding again as he sought an answer. “No real reason, I just heard there might be some good caves up there.”

“There are caves, but don’t go up there. There is much danger. The old ones tell of those lost in the caves.  Their spirits live on and they do not like anyone to disturb their resting place.” Pedro crossed himself as he shuddered.

Johnny stared at the man in wonder. “Is it really true?  About the spirits I mean?”

“Si  muchacho.  Stay away from those caves.”

*************

In Sacramento,  Sharon knocked on the door of the dormitory.  The door was answered by a pimply faced teenage boy.

“Is Scott Lancer here?” She asked.

“Sure” The grinning boy replied. “Come on in” ‘Scott is one lucky guy’ the teenager thought.

Mrs. Hanson came into the parlor at the knock at the door and looked at the young girl appraisingly.

She noted the blushing girl was becoming uncomfortable with the presence of the five young men now crowding into the parlor to see her.

Turning to the boys, she scolded. “All of you shoo.  Upstairs for one hour of study time.”  She expertly had the room cleared in no time.

Turning back to the girl, she noted she’d regained some of her composure. “May I help you?”

“Yes…I hope so.  I’ve come to see Mr. Scott Lancer. Is he present?”

Mrs. Hanson once more appraised the young lady before answering. “May I ask why you wish to see him?”

Sharon was fast losing her nerve under the steely eye of the housemother. “I…ah…he came to the aid of a friend of mine and myself and I was hoping to see him again to repay his kindness.” She said with a rush.

Mrs. Hanson crossed her arms and sternly replied, “And exactly how did you plan to do that?  A young lady such as yourself; of obviously good breeding should know it is not proper to show up at a young man’s residence uninvited.”

Sharon blushed to the roots of her auburn hair and couldn’t think of a word to say.  She began to stammer an apology when Mrs. Hanson cut her off. “Well come on then.  If you wish to repay Mr. Lancer’s kindness, come into the sitting room.  Do you sew?”

“Ah…well yes, I know how to sew.”

“Good.  Mr. Lancer was a bit hard on one of his shirts and he needs to have several buttons sewn back on.”

Sharon was stunned as Mrs. Hanson handed her Scott’s shirt, a handful of buttons, and her sewing basket. “I’ll put on some water for tea while you work on that.”

“Will Scott be returning from School soon?” She tried to sound casual.

“No my dear, he had to return home. He had a family emergency.” Mrs. Hanson called from the kitchen.

Sharon’s disappointment battled for a moment with her concern for Scott’s family. “I’m so sorry to hear that. I hope everything turns out alright.”

Mrs. Hanson returned to the sitting room. “Me too dear, me too.”

They’re thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door. Mrs. Hanson rose to answer it. “Will you be a dear and check on the tea kettle?  I think it’s almost ready.”

As she left the room, the tea kettle began to whistle and Sharon went into the kitchen to make the tea.

*********

Mrs. Hanson opened the door to a pretty blonde girl who had her hand raised to knock again.  Obviously startled at the door suddenly opening, Sammi stood for a moment open mouthed until Mrs. Hanson asked, “May I help you?”

“Yes, I’m here to see Scott Lancer.”

Mrs. Hanson narrowed her eyes, “May I inquire as to the nature of your visit?”

“I had an accident a couple of days ago and he gallantly came to my rescue.  I just wanted to thank him and give him this book of poetry. I thought he might enjoy it.”

‘Indeed he might.’ Mrs. Hanson mused as she took a step back and opened the door wider. “Please come in, I was just making a spot of tea.  Would you care to join me?”

“Thank you, I’d like that very much.”

She led the young girl into the sitting room and had to fight a grin of delight at the look of dismay on Sharon’s face.  “Why don’t you two introduce yourselves while I bring the tea.” The housemother said to the speechless girls.

*************

“What are you doing here?” Sharon practically hissed.

“I came to thank Scott for helping me the other day.” Sammi narrowed her eyes, “Why are you here?”

“I came to thank him too.”

“What do you have to thank him for?  It was me he helped.”

“He helped me too.” Sharon replied. “If he hadn’t come along, I would have had to find a way to get you home by myself.”

Sammi sat down and folded her arms, not at all happy with her friend’s reason. “So where is he anyway?”

“Gone.” Sharon smiled at Sammi.

“Gone? Where?”

“He had to return home. Something about a family emergency.”

**************

Mrs. Hanson returned with the tea on a tray and placed it on the coffee table. Smiling to herself, she thought, ‘It’s going to be an interesting year with young Mister Lancer in residence.’

**************

Scott spent the day riding the bag of bones he’s been given.  It gave him some comfort that they were now on Lancer land, and he had a pretty good idea where he was.  He hadn’t been too impressed with the planning done by Tucker and Harris so far.  They had spent a cold and hungry night by a small creek both complaining to the other for not bringing food or even coffee along with them.  Their constant bickering would have gotten on his nerves if it hadn’t been so amusing.

He kept a watch out for a chance to escape, but so far a chance hadn’t arisen.  He had overheard them talking about the ransom they hoped to extract from his father for him, and how they were going to enjoy spending it.

He was tempted to tell them that they would never get away with it and wouldn’t be spending anything other than time in prison if they managed to avoid being buried six feet under.  He figured they would find out soon enough, so he let them prattle away about all the women they’d have flocking to them and all the whiskey they could buy.

Scott didn’t feel in particular danger from the pair as they up to this point had been all talk.  Tucker didn’t even put his finger in the trigger guard when he pointed his gun at him, so Scott felt he was fairly safe for the moment.

Late in the afternoon, the three arrived at Big Oak.   They climbed the bluff to get a better view of the meadow and made another dry camp.  Grateful that they just left his hands tied in front of him, Scott sat down against a tree conserving his energy and watching his captors for a chance to escape.

**********

Supper that night was a strained affair. Johnny sat quietly in his place and for a second night in a row, Paul and Teresa joined them.  They often joined them on special occasions and had Sunday supper with them, but two regular nights in a row was unusual.

He was roused out of his thoughts by Teresa asking him a question, “Johnny. Johnnee!”

“What?”

“I asked you a question.  Are you looking forward to starting school on Monday?”

With a quick glance at his father, he answered. “I guess I don’t got no choice.”

“You don’t have a choice.” His father corrected.

“That’s what I said.”

“No you said ‘I don’t got no choice.’  The proper way to say it is, ‘I don’t have a choice.’ I know your tutor taught you better than that and I expect you to start using proper grammar.”

“Fine.”  Johnny fumed.

Paul raised his glass of wine to his lips to hide his smile. He finished his wine as Maria came in to start clearing away the dishes.

“Johnny will clear Maria.  Supper was wonderful, thank you.” Murdoch reminded Maria.

With a sigh, Johnny began taking plates and dishes into the kitchen.

**************

Paul stood up and motioned for Teresa to do the same.  “You go on home honey. I’ll be along in a little while to read you a story.  I want you all washed and ready for bed by the time I get there.”

“Yes Papa.”

Both men watched the little girl head out to the corridor leading to the O’Brien’s quarters.

“Come on into the living room for a minute.” Murdoch poured two glasses of whisky.  In a quiet voice he told Paul his plans for the next day.  He was mindful of Johnny clearing the table.  Paul nodded his understanding of the plan and was pleased to be included in the rescue of his old friend’s son.

“I’ve already spoken to Cipriano.  He and Manuel will join us.  They will stay out of sight until I signal.”

“How are you planning on taking the gold?”

“Pack mule…Molly to be exact.  It takes five saddle bags to hold that many gold coins.”

Paul began to laugh.  “That’s brilliant.  Give them that old mule and she’ll drag her heels all the way to Mexico.”

“That’s if she doesn’t mule kick their horses first.  I look at it this way, if they get away with the money, at least we’ll get rid of Molly.”  The two men touched their glasses together and laughed.

Their laughter died quickly when they remembered Scott out there all alone.  Paul reached over and gave Murdoch’s arm a squeeze.  “Don’t worry, we’ll get him back.  Try to get some sleep.”

Paul left and Murdoch’s attention was drawn to Johnny who seemed to be moving in slow motion as he cleared the table.  Murdoch was pretty sure Johnny couldn’t hear the conversation, but he walked over to the dining table as Johnny picked up the last of the silverware.

“Take those in and then go up to bed.”

“But it’s too early…”

“No it’s not. Early bedtime for a month. Remember?”

Johnny sighed, “Yes sir.”

“Goodnight Son.  Get a good sleep.”

“Goodnight.”  Johnny stood there holding a handful of silverware looking tentatively at his father.

Murdoch once again knew the time was right and reached out to draw his youngest in a bear hug.  He took a measure of comfort in having at least one son in his arms tonight.

****************

Scott rolled back and forth trying to find a comfortable place to sleep.  It was a warm night and the moon was full.  Try as he might he couldn’t seem to make his mind go blank so he could sleep.  He was disappointed when they had retied his hands and attached a short rope to a tree nearby.  It gave him a measure of freedom, but for now it thwarted his plans to escape.

Giving up entirely on sleep, he lay on his side until he heard the even shallow breathing of both men.  Neither one wanted to stay awake and keep watch so they reasoned that his father wouldn’t find them in the dark and it was safe to sleep.

He suppressed a groan as his shoulder bumped into what felt like a boulder. Barely breathing, Scott dug at the dirt until he found the rock that had kept him from going to sleep.  He started to set it down as an idea popped into his mind. His lips smiled at the irony that this was one of the rocks that had been keeping him awake and it was going to help him escape.

Moving slowly but carefully, Scott began to rub the sharp edge of the rock against the rope.  He felt the sweat run down his back and face as he concentrated on applying the force needed to fray the fibers of the rope.

Just a few hours before the first light of morning, Scott felt the rope pull apart.  He stifled a gasp as he felt the blood rush back into his hands fully for the first time all day.  He lay frozen, all his senses alert as he waited to make sure Harris and Tucker kept sleeping.  Moving very quietly, he slowly rolled out of his bedroll and crept to the edge of camp.  He stood there in indecision.  The horses were on the other side of the camp and he could hear them moving about restlessly.  He wanted to get to them, but he couldn’t risk awaking his captors.

He disappeared into the brush and began his climb to the safety of the caves above.  He had explored this area extensively with some boys from Morro Coyo a few years ago. He stopped once to catch his breath and listen for any sounds coming from the camp below.  Hearing nothing but the hooting of an owl, he continued to climb until he reached the safety of the cave.

Wrapping his arms around his drawn up legs, he tried to conserve body heat as he sat and waited until dawn when things would start to get interesting.

************************************************************************

Year 1 Part 9

Breakfast that morning in the Lancer kitchen was a quiet affair.  The two occupants at the table were lost in their own thoughts.  Murdoch didn’t have much of an appetite as he sipped his coffee and idly watched Johnny push his pancakes around on his plate.  The hot coffee tasted good as he hadn’t slept much as he poured over his plans to rescue Scott.

Murdoch opened his mouth to admonish Johnny to stop playing with his food, but this morning let it go. He knew the boy’s emotional state was fragile right now and he didn’t want to unsettle him anymore.  If all went well today, Johnny would find out about Scott’s kidnapping after the fact and that his brother was safe.

If the worst happened…well Murdoch wasn’t even going to think about it.  He took another sip of his coffee and shook that thought out of his mind.

“Finish your milk son, and eat another couple bites of your pancakes.  You’ve got a busy day ahead of you.”

Johnny threw him a curious glance as he picked up his glass and took a drink.  Murdoch watched as Johnny reached his arm up to wipe his sleeve across his mouth. “Napkin.” He reminded with a shake of his head.

Johnny sighed and wiped the milk mustache off with his napkin and speared a piece of soggy pancake into his mouth. Grimacing, he complained, “Its cold.”

“Whose fault is that?  You’ve been playing with it for the last fifteen minutes.  Now eat two more bites.”  He waited until Johnny stuffed another piece in his mouth and began chewing theatrically.

“After you finish your chores this morning, I want you to spend a couple hours reviewing your school work.”  At the sudden frown on Johnny’s face, he held up a hand and continued. “You start school on Monday and I want you to be ready, so don’t give me any argument.”

“Maria, will you see that he gets a good start on his work?” Turing back to Johnny, “I’ll be checking it this evening, so make sure you do a good job.” Murdoch was satisfied that would keep his mischievous son out of trouble for most of the morning.

As Murdoch got up to leave the table, he added. “I want you to clean the chicken coop this morning when you’re done with your other chores.  Then come in and take a bath before you start your studying.”

The look Johnny gave him would have made Murdoch chuckle under other circumstances.  “You want me to clean out that old chicken coop, take a bath and study?  All in the same day?” Johnny exclaimed.

“It won’t kill you.  Just make sure you have it done by the time I get home this afternoon. Understand?”

Johnny once again began to push the pancake around his plate. “Yes…sir.” He sighed.

Murdoch smiled at the sight of his son’s bowed head. “See you later. Be good.”

****************

Johnny walked slowly to the barn to begin his chores.  Today was not going to his liking at all. He’d hoped his father would tell him about Scott, if only to reassure him that everything was going to be alright.  Now he had all these chores to do and he had a big decision to make.

He could do as he was told or he could disobey and do what he wanted.  As he picked up a pitchfork to start cleaning a stall, he worked the problem out in his mind.  He decided his brother was much more important that any old chicken coop…but a part of him really hoped his father would understand.

He rushed through his chores as fast as he could, but it was still almost ten o’clock when he finished pumping the water into the trough by the barn.  His arm ached from the strain of pumping the rusty handle and he idly washed the red rust off his hands in the trough. He looked over toward the house and saw that Maria was hanging out the wash.  It was now or never as he went back into the barn to saddle Cierra.

*************

Tucker and Harris had been searching for Scott since first light.  The boy had disappeared and the two men were in a foul mood.  They were bickering with each other as they searched, and kept running into dead ends.

“He just disappeared!” Tucker shouted in frustration.

“He’s on foot and couldn’t get far in the dark.  He’s just a kid, we gotta out think him.”  Harris added.

“He knows this place better’n we do.  He must be hid out somewhere.” Tucker replied.

Harris scanned the area around their camp once again.  They had checked all the obvious places except the hard climb up the embankment above them.  “I guess we go up.” Pointing to the rocky hillside.

“I’ll go up. I’m gonna teach that kid a lesson when I catch him.” Tucker spit on his hands and rubbed them together.

“Alright, I’ll keep a look out. Lancer ain’t stupid.  He ain’t gonna come in here and hand us all that gold with a how’d a do.”

With that Tucker started climbing the bank.  He had to use every hand hold he could find, grateful the roots and brush held tight as he scrambled to the top.  Once up, he could see the valley below and had to stop for a moment to catch his breath. ‘Gonna be a warm day.’ He thought as his breath returned to normal.

He turned and began searching for Scott.  He was determined to find the boy and make him pay to causing him all this trouble. ‘He wasn’t going to let any kid get the best of him!’ He smiled in satisfaction as he discovered footprints in the soft dirt and began following.”

Tucker continued to pull brush away and began calling, “Boy, come out. I know yer up here.  It’ll go easier on ya if you come out yerself.  If I gotta go in and drag ya out, yer gonna be one sorry boy.  I seen the way yer pa treats you.  Like yer somethin’ special.  If I gotta find ya, I’ll give ya the whippin’ ya needed for a long time.  This is yer last chance boy, come out now.”

Tucker pulled away another clump of brush and smiled in satisfaction. “So yer in this here cave, boy.  No way outta here, so give yerself up.” He could clearly see the foot prints into the cave.

As he ducked his head into the cave, he struck a match to see where the boy was hiding.  He moved further into the cave, and a sudden sound drew his attention as his world went dark.

*********

Scott smiled in satisfaction as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve.  It worked perfectly.  He nodded toward the boulder that was blocking the entrance of the cave.  His science teacher would be proud of him using a lever to move the boulder into place.

Now all he had to do was deal with Harris, take one of the horses and ride home to get help.  First things first Scotty boy, he told himself, as he worked his way back down the slope.  He couldn’t go the same way he came up as it was just too steep so he had to go the long way and work his way back around.

Another hour later, Scott stopped to catch his breath.  He brushed off his shirt and began to pick the burrs and stickers out of his pants.  He had to wade through a couple patches of brambles and he rubbed at the scratches on his arms.  So far, he avoided a couple patches of poison oak, and had practically scared the pants off himself when he almost stepped on a rattlesnake moving slowly out of his way. The snake was sluggish in the heat and was fat from a recent meal so it just wanted to avoid him and get to the shade.  With a warning rattle of its tail it slithered into the brush and disappeared.

Now Scott was within a half a mile of the camp.  Taking Harris would be tricky. Of the two of them, Harris was the brains. He moved slowly and silently as he searched for his quarry.

************

Murdoch timed his entrance into the meadow perfectly. He halted his horse and gave the lead line a pull to get Molly’s attention.  By the position of the sun, he guessed it was almost noon.  He pulled out his pocket watch and flipped it open to see he was just twenty minutes from the meeting time.

He nudged his gelding forward and gave the lead line another pull to wake the mule up and they worked their way down into the meadow to meet the man holding his son hostage.  Cipriano and Paul had worked their way into place several hours before and he was confident that Paul was watching his every move and using the spyglass to search for signs of his son’s or his abductor.

Another fifteen minutes and he rode into the area known locally as Big Oak.  This meadow was used by the cattle in the summer as it was kept watered by an underground spring and the grass stayed lush through summer.  Just now the grass was starting to turn brown as the heat of summer had taken its toll.

Murdoch sat atop his gelding and waited.  His heart was hammering in his chest as he counted the minutes.

“Lancer!”

Murdoch swiveled his head at the sound as he tried to hone in on the voice. “I’m here.  I brought the ransom.  Show yourself and let my son go.” He commanded.

“My, my. Still givin’ orders.” The voice mocked.

The voice sounded vaguely familiar, but Murdoch couldn’t place it. “Where’s my son? Where’s Scott?”

“You’ll get yer pretty boy back soon as I get what I want.”

“How do I know you even have him?” Murdoch challenged.

Before he could react, Scott’s jacket was thrown down in front of him.  Murdoch tensed and his hand went for the pistol on his hip.

“Drop it.” Came the next command and Murdoch could see the man had a rifle pointing right at his chest.

Slowly he drew his gun and tossed it on the ground near Scott’s jacket.

“Harris!” Murdoch hissed.

“Yep.  I told ya I’d get ya back.  Now, you get offa that horse and raise yer hands.” The man gestured with the rifle.

Murdoch dismounted, raised his arms and waited for his next instruction.

“Walk over there.”  Once more the rifle barrel was used to point the way.

Harris kept his rifle pointed at Murdoch as he walked over to the horse and mule.  He quickly began opening the saddle bags and his eyes grew large at the stuffed bags.  He laughed and figured since Tucker never came back, he’d just take his treasure and light out.

He tipped his hat at Murdoch and began to mount Murdoch’s gelding.

“Harris!  Where’s my son?”

Before Harris or Murdoch could react, Scott stepped out of the brush and announced. “I’m right here.”

Harris immediately turned his rifle toward Scott in reaction to his sudden appearance. Out of the corner of his eye he caught movement as Murdoch rushed toward him, but before he could react, he was thrown off balance by a rock hitting the side of his temple and the sound of his rifle firing as he squeezed the trigger.

***********

Murdoch lay on top of the still man and for a moment wondered what happened.  He wildly looked up to see Scott as he ran toward him.  He raised himself up and  realized that Harris was out cold, but his mind still hadn’t taken in what exactly happened.

Scott’s shout drew his attention. ‘Pa!”

He looked up to see Scott kneeling in the grass over his youngest son’s fallen body. He struggled to his feet and ran the short distance to his sons, only vaguely aware of Paul and Cipriano directing the men to guard Harris.

“Johnny, Oh my God…Son.” Murdoch said in anguish as he stared helplessly at his young son’s still body, his head covered in blood.

“Pa, you’ve got to help him.” Scott pleaded.

Scott’s hands were covered in his brother’s blood as he moved a little out of the way so his father could get a better look at Johnny.

Murdoch wiped the blood from Johnny’s face and head as he carefully searched for the wound.  His stomach turned over at his fear of what he would find.  With a sigh of relief, he assured himself that all the blood was coming from a graze where the bullet split the hairs of his scalp but didn’t enter the boy’s head.

Murdoch looked up into the pale face of his oldest and reassured him. “It’s just a graze. He’s going to be all right.”  He nodded his thanks to Paul as his foreman handed him a folded up neckerchief.  He pressed it against the wound for several minutes to slow the flow of blood.

Cipriano came over and said something quietly in his ear.  “Hold this for me.” He passed the duty to Cipriano of keeping pressure on the wound.

Murdoch walked on shaky legs over to Harris.  He took hold of the man’s shirt collar and towered over him. “Where’s your partner?  Where’s Tucker?”

When the man just shook his head, Murdoch released him with a shove and ordered. “Tie him up and spread out. He didn’t pull this alone.”

At his father’s words, Scott drew his attention from his brother.  “Tucker’s trapped in the Spirit Cave. I rolled a boulder over the entrance this morning.”

“I’ll take care of it, Murdoch.” Paul offered. “You get these boys home.”  Paul immediately gave instructions to the remaining men to find Tucker and he himself made sure Harris was tied up tight.

Murdoch mounted his gelding and Cipriano passed the still unconscious Johnny up to him while Scott mounted another horse and the three Lancer men headed back to the house.

*************

The next day, Johnny lay on the couch with a light blanket covering him.  He had spent most of the morning in bed, but had managed to talk his way downstairs to the couch by afternoon.  He still had quite a headache, but overall felt a lot better.  He had a bandage wrapped around his head and it was mighty sore, but overall he felt pretty good.

Scott had spent most of the morning with him as the two of them filled each other in on their recent adventures.  Johnny smiled as he remembered Scott’s praise for his good aim with the rock, but he quickly frowned at his next thought.  Their father was arranging to have Tucker and Harris taken to the State Marshall in Sacramento, but he said he’d be back later to ‘deal’ with them.

Neither boy was looking forward to his return as they both were afraid to find out exactly what their father meant.

Scott returned from the kitchen carrying a tray.  He set it on the coffee table and perched on the couch as Johnny sat up.  “Maria went all out.  She made sandwiches, lemonade, cookies and gave us cherry pie!”  Maria had been showering them both with attention since their return.  She also scolded them every chance she got in Spanish and English for being so foolhardy.

Johnny reached for a cookie and Scott immediately started to slap his hand away.  At seeing the look on his little brother’s face, he laughed and took a cookie for himself.  Johnny grinned at his big brother and the two of them happily gorged themselves on Maria’s treats.

 

~end~

To Year Two

Thank you to everyone who read this story. I appreciate the feedback.  Special thanks to Linda B, Barb and Winj for encouraging me to write it.  Also to Sharon and Sammi for being such good sports.

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